I’m looking at an old man standing by a casket. He is tall—so tall, in fact, he leans forward at the neck. He wears a side cap, trimmed in gold. He uses a cane.
The preacher says words over the mahogany box—which has an American flag draped over it.
My friend’s uncle died of congestive heart failure. My friend insisted that this funeral would be one worth writing about.
He even loaned me a black sport coat.
I won’t lie, I didn’t want to come. The deceased is of no relation, I’m among grieving people I don’t know.
I feel like an imposter.
The old man standing nearby is the picture of a world that came before me.
He is old Buicks, Chevy Impalas. He’s river-cane fishing poles, high-waisted trousers, the Ed Sullivan Show, and holding doors open for girls just because they’re female.
And he’s standing with a kind of antique pride. You see it in the stiffness of his neck.
After the scripture reading, the real service begins.
Seven uniforms form a line. They hold rifles. Three shots in unison. The rounds scare local birds for miles.
The man with the trumpet wets his lips.
I met the trumpet player earlier. He is mid-thirties, born in Little Rock. He joined when he was nineteen. He’s never lived anywhere for more than a few years.
I asked where he calls home. “Wherever they send me,” he said.
He blows the horn and makes “Taps” come out the other end.
We who listen are powerless against it. The dam breaks. There is a choir of sniffles. My friend’s mother loses it.
The old man doesn’t move. He is showing full salute. His hand touches his brow. There is something rolling down his cheek.
Men in white gloves fold the flag into a triangle.
And it is done.
People disperse, they hike toward cars. Kids loosen neckties. I see the old man, hobbling across a sea of headstones.
I remove my sport coat and give it back to my friend.
“Who was that old man?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Never met him.”
I see the old fella crawl into a green Mercury. He drives slow toward the gates of the cemetery.
The vehicle rolls away. He has a bumper sticker of Old Glory on his car. And a 101st Airborne Division sticker.
I wish I would’ve said something to him.
In fact, that’s why I’ve written this. It’s longer than I usually write because I have more to say.
That’s what I want to say. Thanks for giving up your youth to jump out of airplanes. Thanks for loving a uniform so much, you keep it in your closet for the day of your own burial.
I’d also like to thank my granddaddy, my uncles, and any veteran—breathing or not. Thank you for growing into manhood behind enemy lines. In France, Italy, Belgium, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan.
Thank you for the friends you lost. Thank you for the shrapnel, the bullets, the ambushes, the IED’s, prison camps, the fear, the amputations, and the hell you survived.
Thank you waving a flag from your front porch—and on your bumper.
Thank you for showing me what an old man looks like when he salutes with his full heart.
And if by some chance you read this, sir, I am grateful that you were at this funeral today.
I understand you’d never even met the deceased.
Becky - September 30, 2017 1:34 pm
This was especially moving. Positively wonderful
gayle tucker - September 30, 2017 1:36 pm
Sean, remember it is not just men who gave up their youth. We women made sacrifices while we were in the military. We were nurses, co-pilots, gunners, supply clerks and ground-pounders. I served in the Marine Corps but females are represented in all the armed forces.
Judy - September 30, 2017 1:57 pm
“Salutes from his heart.” – that is just what you did, Sean. Thank you.
Mary - September 30, 2017 2:09 pm
Oh Sean, this one got to me. I’m on my way to a funeral. To say goodbye. When I think of old men saluting the flag, I always remember how my dad, worn thin with cancer and age, could stand as tall and erect as any 18 year old and offer a crisp heartfelt salute. Before he died, I took him to the local Veterans Wall. I left him alone quietly as he sat in his wheelchair facing the wall. I don’t know what he thought. He didn’t tell too many war stories. Most of his lifelong friends had gone before him. I think when Dad got to heaven, the first thing he saw was Jesus. Then his mom and dad, my mom. Behind them was a whole cadre of sailors forming a path for him to enter. Each one saluting.
Mariam - September 30, 2017 4:40 pm
Beautiful and very Sean-ish !
Melodie - October 1, 2017 4:11 pm
Mary, Thank you for sharing your story, and I thank your dad and others. I salute them from my heart.
I am sorry you had to attend another funeral.
Melodie - October 1, 2017 4:12 pm
Mary, I replied to your comment, but I think I commented in the space below Mariam’s post. I hope you see it.
Cathi Russell - September 30, 2017 2:13 pm
So appropriate right now given what is happening with the disrespect being given to our national anthem by people who haven’t a clue as to what they are doing. Thank you, sincerely.
Nedra Tucker - September 30, 2017 2:26 pm
Diana - September 30, 2017 2:40 pm
Amen and amen!
Connie - September 30, 2017 2:46 pm
Oh my. So beautiful and timely. Many tears this morning.
Jack Quanstrum - September 30, 2017 2:48 pm
Thank you so much Sean for writing this. My Dad served in WWII Iwoa Jima . I know I spelled it wrong. What a sacred tribute. Thank you sharing again what is really important. You are very pertinent. Shalom!
John Lewis - September 30, 2017 3:02 pm
I’ve been there.
Flag draped coffin. A few words spoken. Three sharp volleys from firing detail. TAPS played slowly and mournfully, the most beautiful song in the world when played at the funeral or memorial service of one who has served our country. Tears rolling down my cheeks.
Yes, I’ve been there. Many times.
And I will go again, God willing.
And someday, hopefully not in the near future, it will be me in that coffin.
Busby Wanda - September 30, 2017 3:06 pm
thank you for your ability to see what most do not and put ‘it’ into words for the rest if us to be able to relate or just to know someone else understands
Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - September 30, 2017 3:30 pm
My daddy served in Europe in WWII. I guess you could say he did grow up there as he was very young. Thank you for this writing. You touched my heart again.
Marty from Alabama - September 30, 2017 4:08 pm
I couldn’t leave well-enough alone. I just had to find today’s entry and now I’m a sniffing bag of tears. I’ve had a daddy, uncles, brother, friends, cousins and my husband all do their duty to God and Country. Where has the pride and glory of service to others gone? All I can say now is, “GOD BLESS THE USA.”
Lisa - September 30, 2017 4:23 pm
This deserves a re-post on November 11th, Veteran’s Day.
Mariam - September 30, 2017 4:37 pm
Linda Chipman - September 30, 2017 4:32 pm
I have something running down my face. Thank you for writing this.
Pamela McEachern - September 30, 2017 4:45 pm
I honor our veterans and their service to allow us to live the lives we live. God Bless America’s men and women who have given so much. I am humbled ??
Margie F. Novota - September 30, 2017 5:11 pm
Thank you, Sean, for writing this so beautifully. Four years ago we buried my beloved husband who was a WWII veteran. I have heard the stories over and over again of the things they endured. He went in at 18 years old. He was at the landing of Normandy and Battle of the Bulge. I have one of those folded flags; we had taps played and bag pipes played “Amazing Grace”. Beautiful celebration of what we stand for in our family today. Peace and love in our hearts!
Suzanne Baughn - September 30, 2017 5:49 pm
I love your writings. I read them each day and they truly brighten and add depth to my day. Thank you.
MaryJane Lincoln Breaux - September 30, 2017 6:05 pm
Few things are more humbling and heartbreaking as a military honors service. When my Uncle passed they tucked three casings into the folded flag. Duty,Honor and Service. The Greatest Generation, they have my full appreciation and respect.
Mona Ponder - September 30, 2017 8:13 pm
Your email has brought tears to this old woman’s eyes. Thank you for your posting and making me think how important life is for everyone it doesn’t matter the age
Cheryl - September 30, 2017 9:17 pm
It wasn’t until I lost my daddy that I learned you do not need to know the person who died…you need to be there for your friend who is left behind.
Steve dolan - September 30, 2017 9:38 pm
I had the pleasure recently of paying for the breakfast of 4 Korean War veterans at Cracker Barrel
Even as frail as they looked walking in, they walked upright…I payed for them in advance and left before they ever knew it was..
Sharon Reaves - September 30, 2017 9:42 pm
Thank you for writing this. It made me think of my own Dad’s funeral only 5 years ago. He was a Vietnam vet and also passed from congestive heart failure. He retired from the Army after 20 years of service. And my own husband just retired from the Air Force last May after 30 years and 6 deployments. Thank you for recognizing their service and sacrifices and for the way that your words stirred the strings of my heart.
Barbara Assell - September 30, 2017 9:58 pm
Thank you for the moving and powerful account of your experience. Bot of my parents served in the Navy during WW II. At my dad’s graveside service, the three gun salute was so loud and powerful, then Taps was so moving and had us all in tears. The solemn folding of the flag was very meaningful. My mom is almost 94 and we do will again. My parents were part of that “greatest generation”,the likes of which we will never see again. Bless you for writing this one.
Deena Grimsley - September 30, 2017 10:22 pm
What a beautiful soul the old soldier and you share in a world of soulless people. Love you Sean.
Bill - October 1, 2017 11:36 am
Kay Keel - October 1, 2017 2:43 pm
Melodie - October 1, 2017 4:07 pm
Spoken like a true American. ♥
Judy Miller - October 2, 2017 1:38 am
Probably a representative from the local VFW.
Kim - October 2, 2017 3:47 pm
My father is a Vietnam Veteran and he died in January of this year. My mother died a little less than two years before him. His graveside service was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Mom was gone, so they presented me the flag and I was completely humbled and honored…and grateful. Grateful for his service and that God allowed them to give me life. They were exceptional people.
Jesse Sprayberry - October 2, 2017 9:27 pm
I was driving through Fairhope this past Labor Day weekend. On the North side of town they line Section Street which is the main Street going in to Fairhope with American flags on holidays.. All of a sudden all the traffic stopped and I couldn’t figure out was what was wrong. I eased my truck out a little and I saw this older gentlemen, on a cane hobbling across the road. He had stopped his car and gotten out in a drizzling rain. One of the flags had fallen down. He picked the flag up and jammed it back in the ground and stepped back and saluted it. Then hobbled back across the road into his vehicle and drove away.
contributed by a friend who lives in Fairhope, AL
Pamela McEachern - October 3, 2017 3:57 am
Thank you, we still have some of our most important generation showing us the way. God Bless America ??