The mean­ing of each fold

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

There is some­thing that de­mands a prayer upon a mil­i­tary funeral flag­fold­ing. That, at least, has long been the con­sid­ered, in­for­mal judg­ment of Na­tional Ceme­tery Ad­min­is­tra­tion vol­un­teer honor guards as they carry out their solemn duty. Their 13-fold recita­tion, one for each orig­i­nal Amer­i­can colony, is part pa­tri­otic homage, part prayer for the fallen. Congress didn’t or­der it; there were no of­fi­cial mem­o­randa. The aim is to com­fort, and it has done so for gen­er­a­tions of the be­reaved.

But last month, the De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs tried to re­move men­tion of God or re­li­gion af­ter a Cal­i­for­nia fam­ily ob­jected to one guard’s man­gling of the phrase “the God of Abra­ham, Isaac and Ja­cob.” This mas­sive over-re­ac­tion was halted on Oct. 30, thank­fully, when the VA re­in­stated the prayer. Hear­ing the twists of logic, and the var­i­ous turns of this story, is to un­der­stand why gov­ern­ment should tread as lightly as pos­si­ble on such spon­ta­neous tra­di­tions. Let the fam­i­lies of fallen ser­vice mem­bers have prayers among their burial tra­di­tions.

In a Sept. 27 mem­o­ran­dum, the di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Ceme­tery Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Of­fice of Field Pro­grams, Steve L. Munro, or­dered honor guards to stop us­ing a hand­out ti­tled “The Mean­ing of Each Fold of an Honor Guard Funeral Flag,” or recit­ing its con­tents, un­less specif­i­cally re­quested by fam­i­lies, cit­ing a “com­plaint sent to the Pres­i­dent of the United States that there was a gross er­ror in the hand­out with ref­er­ence to the 11th fold ‘[. . .] glo­ri­fy­ing the Gods Abra­ham, Isaac and Ja­cob.”

That was a real er­ror, to be sure: The Abra­hamic reli­gions wor­ship the God of those three holy men, not the men them­selves. But the proper so­lu­tion is to cor­rect the er­ror, not to ban the prac­tice al­to­gether.

Honor guards are the beat­ing heart of a mil­i­tary funeral. Re­tain­ing the recita­tion would not be some gross in­tru­sion of re­li­gion upon gov­ern­ment. Fam­i­lies of non-Abra­hamic reli­gions, and those of no re­li­gion at all, can opt out. The vast ma­jor­ity of fam­i­lies pre­fer to par­take of this tra­di­tion. They should be able to do so.

Read­ing the memo, leaked to the press, a very Grad­grind-like bu­reau­cratic dis­dain shows through. “There are var­i­ous ver­sions of the script cir­cu­lat­ing by anony­mous au­thors. Some of those scripts are re­li­gious in na­ture and also as­cribe mean­ing to the in­di­vid­ual folds put into the flag,” it reads. The hor­ror. “Ef­fec­tively im­me­di­ately all na­tional ceme­ter­ies are to re­frain from dis­tribut­ing any hand­outs on ‘The Mean­ing of Each Fold of an Honor Guard Funeral Flag.’ “ Ex­cep­tions would be made when next-of-kin specif­i­cally re­quests a recita­tion. That, of course, is how gov­ern­ment kills a spon­ta­neous tra­di­tion. It withers slowly on the vine.

The present up­roar was needed to sus­tain it. In­fu­ri­ated let­ters by Rep. Heath Shuler, North Carolina Demo­crat, and oth­ers, plus the Amer­i­can Le­gion’s vow to dis­obey or­ders, played their part. “Out-of-con­trol sec­u­lar­ists,” raged Rep. Ken Calvert, Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can. A chas­tened VA is­sued this state­ment late Tues­day: “Honor­ing the burial wishes of vet­er­ans is one of the high­est com­mit­ments for the men and women of VA,” said Un­der­sec­re­tary of Me­mo­rial Af­fairs William F. Tuerk. The 13fold recita­tion was re­in­stated.

Pre­serve our spon­ta­neous, or­ganic tra­di­tions. And for Abra­ham’s sake, let be­reaved fam­i­lies have their prayers.

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