The liturgy in an Army funeral

I covered the funeral of Lee Atkins last Saturday evening for the Wednesday Journal.  Atkins took his own life the week before, three years after returning from a deployment to Afghanistan.  Because he was a member of the Illinois National Guard, the U.S. Army had a very visible presence in the service.

The funeral was held at Unity Temple in Oak Park, a Unitarian Universalist church.  Unitarians are not known as a liturgical church, i.e. they don’t use a lot of ritual but rely more on the spoken word.

Therefore, the service itself was comprised almost exclusively of talking. . .except for the part played by the Army.

To begin with, a seven man honor guard in full dress uniform ushered Atkins’ remains and his extended family into the worship space in a quiet, dignified manner.

Especially moving was the time when all military personnel present paid their last respects.  One by one they moved slowly forward down the center aisle towards the front—I counted about fifty in all.  When each soldier got to the front he/she slowly raised a salute, pivoted and said something to Atkins’ mother and father.

Then the flag ceremony at the end of the service added more dignity.  Silently the Army honor guard unfolded the American flag and stretched it out.  After the bugler played taps, the honor guard refolded the flag which was presented to Atkins’ mother.

I got the feeling that the soldiers participating in the ceremonies weren’t playing games.  Most of them had done one or more tours in Afghanistan or Iraq.  They had put their lives on the line and seen comrades injured or killed. 

Non-liturgical church people sometimes criticize liturgical churches for just going through the motions thinking that ceremonies really communicate with God or communicate God’s holiness and love to his people.  That can certainly be true at times and in some churches.

But the dignity and meaning conveyed to me by those soldiers last Saturday as they participated in their military ceremonies reminded me how powerful liturgical ritual can be.

It goes to show you that you can learn a lot about yourself and your culture from people and places you wouldn’t expect.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...