Military Funeral Etiquette and Protocols to Expect

Updated May 19, 2022
military funeral with soldier holding folded flag

While any funeral is a reverent affair, military funeral protocols are typically more formal. All attendees are generally expected to maintain their bearing and not cause a commotion. This is particularly true for military members in uniform, though everyone is expected to show respect to the deceased. Understanding this funeral etiquette will help attendees know how to conduct themselves while attending a military funeral and avoid any unintentional etiquette mistakes.

When to Salute at a Military Funeral

Civilians are not required to salute at military funerals. There is not a rule forbidding civilians from saluting, but it is proper etiquette for civilians to refrain from doing so. When rendered incorrectly, a salute can be a huge breach of etiquette, which is why it's best to leave this aspect of a military funeral to attendees who are veterans or who are currently serving in a branch of the Armed Forces, which include the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, National Guard, and Space Force.

When Military Personnel Should Salute

military salute at funeral

If you are a member of the Armed Forces, you will be expected to behave in a respectful manner. Besides wearing your dress uniform, you should stand and salute in several specific circumstances, such as the ones listed below, unless you are serving as a pallbearer.

  • When the hearse passes in front of you
  • Whenever the casket is being moved
  • While Taps is being played
  • During the gun salute
  • While the casket is being lowered into the ground (if applicable)
  • While the flag following a cremation urn passes by (if applicable)

If a current or former military member is in attendance but, for whatever reason is not in uniform, they can still salute.

Salute Alternatives for Civilians at a Military Funeral

If you are a civilian attending a military funeral, you should remove your hat or any other head gear (if wearing) and place it over your heart. This applies to women and men alike. If you aren't wearing a hat, simply place your right hand over your heart. Do this in the same circumstances that a service member or veteran would be expected to salute. It may feel strange to make this motion rather than a salute, but this is what is expected of civilians. It would be far too easy for someone not properly trained in the art of the military salute to make a mistake that would result in a breach of etiquette, so this is the best course of action for civilians.

What to Wear to a Military Funeral

Etiquette is different for attendees depending on their function and their military affiliation. Etiquette can also be different between those in military uniform and those in civilian clothes.

Military Funeral Dress Code for Service Members

Military personnel should wear their appropriate dress uniform, which is typically the Class-A uniform. This is the Dress Uniform. The military mess dress is not appropriate for a funeral.

Family Members and Friends

Everyone in attendance at a military funeral should be dressed respectfully. Dress as you would for a traditional church service. Civilian men should wear a suit and tie, or at least, slacks and a button-up shirt and tie. Civilian women should wear a dress, a suit, or skirt and blouse, or nice pants and a blouse. Casual clothing such as jeans, shorts, t-shirts, or athletic clothing is frowned upon. Wearing such items would be considered a breach of etiquette. Wear comfortable dress shoes, as these services tend to run a little longer than a regular funeral service.

Arlington National Cemetery Dress Code

If you're attending a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, business casual dress is the minimum standard for both men and women. This is true for any ceremony held at Arlington National Cemetery, such as a wreath ceremony. Students can wear their school uniform, but only if an adult school official can confirm the uniforms worn are in accordance with the school's uniform standards. Casual attire is not appropriate for any ceremony at Arlington. Officials at the cemetery are authorized to remove anyone who is not in compliance with the dress code.

Other Military Funeral Etiquette and Protocols

There are a few other customs and traditions you should be aware of so that you do not inadvertently appear disrespectful.

Military Funeral Flower Etiquette

As with other funeral services, mourners often send flowers to military funerals. People often request flowers in a patriotic theme for military services, but this is not required. Flowers should never be placed on the flag at a military funeral, nor should they be situated above it. It is also not acceptable to display flowers inside an open casket. For military funerals in which the United States flag is draped across the casket, it is expected that all flower arrangements will be standing sprays. When ordering flowers, be sure to let the florist know that they are for a military funeral. A knowledgeable florist will be aware of etiquette and common practices for this type of service.

Military Funeral Honors

The military is required to ensure that at least a two-member honor guard is present at every military funeral honors ceremony. These individuals will be in the Dress Uniform of the branch of service in which the deceased member of the military served. They have two key duties during a funeral service that includes military honors.

  • The honor guard personnel are responsible for playing Taps during the graveside service.
  • They are also responsible for taking care of folding the American flag and presenting it to the deceased service member's immediate family.

Seating Expectations

There are specific seating etiquette guidelines for the funeral service as well as at the gravesite.

  • Attendees should remain standing for the entire service except when the chaplain or other religious figure is reading the committal service if seating is available, or when the person presiding over the service instructs attendees to sit.
  • Allow immediate family members to sit in the chairs available at the cemetery. The next of kin should be in front, as he or she will be the recipient of the folded American flag given as part of the service.
  • Family members and friends who are seated at the gravesite should remain seated throughout the ceremony. Getting up and moving around would be disruptive and disrespectful.

Children in Attendance

Young children and toddlers should not be present at a graveside military funeral unless the family specifically requests their attendance. They are simply too young to understand, and it is difficult for them to remain quiet and still for an extended time. Older children may be mature enough to attend; use your best judgment in deciding whether they should be there or not. If they are going to attend, let them know ahead of time what to expect. Be sure to prepare them for the noise of the gun salute so it does not startle or frighten them.

Guidance From the Chaplain

Those attending the service should follow the lead of the chaplain throughout the event. The chaplain will instruct attendees as to when it is appropriate to sit, stand, or turn their attention toward the flag or casket. Military chaplains generally do a good job of offering instructions to attendees, knowing that not everyone is familiar with military customs. They take their work very seriously and are committed to ensuring that funeral services are respectful and consistent with proper protocol.

No Electronic Devices

Cell phones and other electronic devices should, of course, be turned off for the entire duration of the ceremony. It's a good idea to double-check your devices to be 100 percent certain they will not make noise during the service. A ringing or buzzing cell phone during a service is a grand faux pas.

Mourn in a Respectful Manner

As with any funeral, a military funeral service is intended to serve as a respectful farewell to a loved one who has died, while providing those who cared deeply for the individual to gather and mourn their loss. Observing proper etiquette for a military funeral is an important way of showing respect to the deceased individual and their family. After the funeral, make time to reach out to the family who recently lost their loved one to offer your love and support. Take time to send not only a sympathy card, but a letter of condolence as well. Even phone calls made a few weeks after the service are likely to be welcomed and appreciated.

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Military Funeral Etiquette and Protocols to Expect