Looks like we're on a patriotic track here, so will stay with it for a bit. I mentioned a while ago that I'd be showcasing a couple of patriotic teaching moments. One I already highlighted as having occurred during the Boston Pops 4th of July performance at the Esplanade. You'll have to read it to find out about that patriotic teaching moment.
The 2nd "teaching moment" was just something that a friend made me aware of this summer. We've all seen it done. I've witnessed it in person at the gravesite serivices for military officers. The most recent time was on a beautiful fall day just a year ago for a retired Air Force Colonel who had seen much flight time as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. We've even seen it memorialized on film.
I'm talking about the folding of the American Flag. Where representatives from the respective branches of the American military - the honor guard - fold the flag with great ceremony and present it to the nearest of kin, usually the spouse, with the words, "From a grateful nation". I think, for me, one of the most memorable movie scenes where the ceremony was performed was at Admiral Greer's (played by James Earle Jones) gravesite service in Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger. The ceremony was performed with great pomp and gravitas. In all the times I've witnessed it, however, I never really took the time to reflect on the fact that each fold of the flag has a separate and distinct meaning. It took someone to point it out to me.
First, the proper procudure for folding the flag at any time is as follows:
1. Straighten out the flag, tautly, to its full dimensions (you always hear that snapping sound when it's being made taut ... kind of brings you "to attention") and fold in half lengthwise.
2. Fold it lengthwise a 2nd time, so the folded edge meets the open edge (making sure the stars on the blue field remain in full view). If it's a large flag, you might have to do a 3rd lengthwise fold.
3. Make the first triangular fold by bringing the striped corner of the folded edge towards the open edge.
4. Then turn the outer point inward, so that it's parellel with the open edge, to form the 2nd triangle.
5. Continue the triangular folding process inwards towards the field of stars (which is known as the "blue union").
6. When complete, the folded flag takes on the appearance of a cocked hat.
OK ... this I knew. Again, what I didn't know was the traditional symbolism of the folds.
Some general symbolism first ... and lots of it is pure 100% religious:
First, the canton of blue stars, the blue field, represents honor, the honor with which verterans from each and all of the 50 states served. The canton of blue stars on the American Flag is always displayed at the upper left, or "dressed from left to right", except when the flag is used as the pall on the casket of a veteran. Then the position of the flag is inverted.
And ... did you know, that within the branches of the Armed Forces, when retreat is sounded at the end of day and the flag is ceremoniously lowered, the flag is folded in the traditional triangle and kept under watch throughout the night as a sign of tribute to America's dead soldiers?
And that ... when the flag is, again, ceremoniously run aloft in the morning at reveille, it is done so as a symbol of the Nation's collective belief in the resurrection of the body?
It gets better with the symbolism of the folds. The symbolism is meant to incorporate the Nation's collective beliefs.
Nobody is exactly sure of the exact origin or "authorship" of the symbolism. Some attribute it to a group of Gold Star Mothers. Obviously, if this is the case, they were women of faith.
The 1st fold is a symbol of Life.
The 2nd fold is a symbol of our belief in Eternal Life.
The 3rd fold is in honor of the departing veteran who gave of himself and his or her life in the service of our country.
The 4th fold represents humans' weaker nature and the need for God's guidance in times of war and peace ... In God We Trust.
The 5th fold honors our country, for as Stephen Decatur (US Naval hero of the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812) said: "Our country, in dealing with other countries, may she always be right, but it is still our country, right or wrong.”
The 6th fold honors the "heart" of the nation and her citizens, the heart with which we all Pledge Allegiance to the Flag.
The 7th fold honors the protections afforded this Nation's citizens against all enemies, within and without, by its Armed Forces.
The 8th fold pays specific tribute to the one who "entered into the valley of the shadow of death", that we citizens might see the light of day. It also honors the Mother of the departed and is why the Flag is traditionally flown on Mother's Day.
The 9th fold honors "womanhood", generally, for it's been primarily through the love, loyalty, devotion, and sacrifice of the women that the collective character of the men and women who serve in the military have been molded.
The 10th fold honors fathers because they, too, have given their sons and daughters to the service of this country.
The 11th fold, in the eyes of Jewish American citizens, is representative of the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon and glorifies for those citizens the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The 12th fold, in the eyes of the American Christian, with its display of stars, represents Eternity and glorifies for those citizens the Trinity ... God, the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost.
With the 13th fold, the Flag is now folded. The triangular form, with its striking field of blue stars is representative of our national motto: In God We Trust. The triangularly folded flag in the form of the cocked hat also reminds us of both George Washington and John Paul Jones and the men who served under them during our country's vulnerable infancy, as well as those who have continued the proud tradition.
While traditional gravesite military funeral honors include the silent folding and presentation of the US Flag, three rifle volleys, and the playing of “Taps,” the reading of the 13-fold script by a member of the honor guard is authorized. Further, if the traditional reading of the script is not in keeping with the family of the departed's beliefs, a substitute script that reflects a different religious tradition or even no religious tradition may be substituted and given to the honor guard for recitation.
As for myself, if I were the departed veteran or a member of the family, I'd be proud and honored to have the traditional script recited. It speaks to God, to family, and to the bigger vision of what our country is and always has been and for all for which it has stood.
I only wish someone at one of those services had recited it earlier. So I could have known and reflected upon it long before now.
We have the American Legion to thank for back up on this. They are a tremendous resource for all veteran-related matters.
I'd love to hear from other folks re their personal experiences with the recitation of scripts at military funerals. What other traditions are there ...?