The Significance of Shell Casings in a Burial Flag

U.S. Army honor guard members fold the flag covering a funeral casket at Arlington National Cemetery.
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Placing shell casings inside a U.S. burial flag is a tribute to the deceased veteran, honoring their memory and service. As with all aspects of a military funeral, the Honor Guard must follow the protocol of the ritual exactly.

1 Rifle Firing

During a military funeral, seven members of the U.S. Honor Guard fire M-1 rifles in three volleys consisting of 21 rounds. This is not a 21-gun salute, which has other symbolic meaning in the military. Instead, the firing of rifles in this way is an honor reserved for military funerals that hearkens back to an old custom when soldiers from both sides of the battle used to take breaks to collect their deceased. They used to signal the enemy that they were finished clearing the dead from the field by firing three volleys.

2 Placement in Flag

Following this rifle tribute, a bugler plays Taps. A uniformed military person folds the flag, which they had previously draped over the casket, into 13 folds to symbolize the original 13 colonies. While not mandatory, the uniformed military person frequently places three spent shell casings inside the flag while they are folding it. The shells must be placed in the flag while it is being folded, as it cannot be reopened once they complete the folding ceremony. These shell cases symbolize that the deceased received full military honors. The flag is then presented to the flag recipient on behalf of the president and the branch of the military in which the deceased served.

Brenda Scottsdale is a licensed psychologist, a six sigma master black belt and a certified aerobics instructor. She has been writing professionally for more than 15 years in scientific journals, including the "Journal of Criminal Justice and Behavior" and various websites.