American Legion: over 35 years of paying the final honors to those who served
On January 1, 2000, a mandate was passed that stated that any eligible veteran could have the honors of a military funeral if that was requested of the family. It also stated that the honor guard detail that was present at the funeral should consist of no fewer than two members of the Armed Forces, and one of those members should be of the branch of the service of the deceased. Two members are required to fold and to present the flag, so that is why the minimum; however, American Legion Post 109, Harding Browning, has been doing full military honors for the deceased of the local Armed Forces for at least 35 years.
Henry Bertram, acting chaplin of the Post, has been part of the honor guard since his retirement from his role as county judge executive in 2015. A veteran of Vietnam, Bertram considers his participation in the honor guard as a meaningful way to give his Armed Forces comrades one last recognition for their service to their country.
He also finds it comforting to the families and to those who knew the veteran, including the members of the Post, but it isn’t easy.
“When veterans join the Post, we let them know we participate in military funerals” Bertram explained. “Some can do it, and some can’t. You have to grit your teeth sometimes, especially when you know the person. When that happens, you are grieving and the family is grieving. It is hard to make it through.”
Jim Sharp is the Post commander. Sharp organizes the funerals at the request of the funeral homes. While a minimum of two Post members is required, Sharp works to get 11 members so that they can carry out full military funerals without doubling up or cutting steps from the ceremony. All branches except the Coast Guard are usually represented at the funeral ceremonies.
Post 109 is one of few in the state that is able to carry out a full military funeral, and they travel across the region--sometimes into Ohio--to provide honors to deceased veterans.
Each person in the ceremony has a specific job, and the rites are performed in a specific order.
“The first thing we do is that each member of the guard files by the casket in the funeral home and salutes individually,” Bertram explained. “Someone reads a religious text (for the Post, it is Mike McDowell), and the chaplin leads a prayer. We then present a plaque to the family that denotes the veteran, his dates, his military service details, and what this means for him.
“At the cemetery, we have a prayer, read the eulogy (the format of which was written by Tom Luckey and his wife), and fold the flag while a commentary on the meaning of the stars, stripes, and colors are read.
The flag is then presented to a family member--usually a spouse or a son--and the honor guard is called to attention. At that point, we carry out a 21-gun salute. If we don’t have enough men to do a 21-gun salute, we still do three volleys. Three volleys are more important. Taps is then played, and the military portion is concluded.”
Each element of the funeral has a symbolic meaning. While some meanings are understood, others are a little less obvious.
The flag is draped so that the union blue field is at the head and over the left shoulder.
The three volleys over the grave represents the old custom of halting the fighting to remove the dead from the battlefield. For a period of time, all fighting would stop to honor the fallen.
“Taps” represents nightfall and, in the funeral, it carries back to the days of the Civil War when firing the three volleys over the grave was unsafe due to the proximity of the enemy, according to U.S. Army Military District of Washington website. Now, both the volleys and “Taps” are used during the funeral.
The men who perform the ceremony spend at least four hours from start to finish; usually, they spend much more time than that.
The Post also spends quite a bit of money for the funerals, money that is not provided for by any government.
“The funeral home gives us a $100 honorarium,” Bertram explains. “The State wants us to accept only $60.” As Bertram explained this, he was organizing raffle tickets that the Post was selling as a fundraiser so that they could buy shells for the gun salutes. Other expenses include the plaques, bags with the branch emblems, the computer and printer expenses, among others that no one sees. The one raffle and donations, either from honorariums or from other sources, are the sources of funding for all the needs the funerals generate.
The weapons also have to be verified. While they are modified to shoot only the volley shells, they have upkeep and registrations to renew. The weapons are of Korean and WWII vintage.
While the time that is donated and the number of military retirees that are needed for a full ceremony can be difficult to manage, in the end, Bertram sees how much families appreciate what the Post offers.
“After we held Tim Norton’s dad’s funeral, Tim came to us and said, ‘I’ve always heard about what you guys do. I can’t tell you what it meant to me.’”