Custom of honouring those who served is such a powerful one

Custom of honouring those who served is such a powerful one

Rabbi Danny Burkeman
Rabbi Danny Burkeman

By Rabbi Danny BURKEMAN, The Community Synagogue, New York.

Danny Burkeman
Rabbi Danny Burkeman

When I moved from London to New York there were some customs and traditions I had to get used to.

Most striking of all revolved around funerals and the way in which they are conducted here. I was used to travelling to the cemetery, where there would be a prayer hall in which the funeral service would be conducted. We would then walk, escorting the coffin, to the grave site, where more words would be recited, before participating in the burial, and then returning to the prayer hall for the service conclusion.

I am sure this is an outline that is familiar to many readers. In New York there is one significant amendment to this.

Here, the service begins in the synagogue or in a specific funeral chapel away from the cemetery. The coffin is then escorted in a driven procession to the cemetery, where the concluding elements of the service are conducted graveside, before participating in the burial itself.

I’ve grown used to this practice, and it usually allows for a funeral service attended by many friends and family, followed by the burial, which is generally smaller and more intimate. Some funerals take place in their entirety at the graveside; although in winter, it’s much less common.

I have also been most struck by a non-Jewish custom, and wonder if it could work in the UK. In the US, anyone who served in the military is eligible for a military funeral.

This doesn’t mean it must take place in a military cemetery, but that the US armed forces are involved in the service. When the gathered family and friends arrive at the graveside, the coffin is draped in an American flag.

With two soldiers present representing the US military, one of them, standing at a distance, begins to play Taps on the bugle (a recognisable tune and one which brings an air of solemnity to the proceedings). Following this, the two soldiers, in a very regimented way, step forward to the coffin, and carefully fold the flag until it is a neat triangle.

It is then presented to the closest relative, as the soldier says these or similar words: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

The US is often accused of being an overly patriotic country, but there is something very moving and powerful about this addition to the funeral.

I have been struck by the power that this ritual has both for the family, and for me as an outsider, observing the honour and respect afforded to those who protected their country.

The sound of the bugle serves as a call to attention, and there is something mournful in the tune of Taps, and then to watch the presentation of the flag is to gain a sense that those years of military service are really valued by the country.

The first time I witnessed it, I thought about my grandfather’s funeral. He had enlisted at the outbreak of the Second World War, eager to serve and protect his country.

We have mementos from his army years, but I wondered what it might have been like to have had a moment at the funeral when this military service was acknowledged, not by his family, but by the nation he served.

The funerals at which I have officiated have generally involved men who served in the US military during the Second World War. Knowing what they were fighting against has only served to increase the significance of these moments for me as a rabbi.

I doubt Britain will adopt a similar practice any time soon, or that if it did exist it would be as widespread, but I have been struck by the way in which those who served the country are honoured.

It’s not what I grew up with, it’s not what I’m used to, but it is a very powerful moment in the funeral.

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