Till the light of the dawn shineth bright.
God is near, do not fear,
--Horace Lorenzo Trim (words to the tune “Taps”)
The tune itself is only 24 notes long, a simple and mournful song, bare, sparse, with no flourishes or riffing. Played on a bugle or a trumpet, it is about a half a minute long. First composed in 1862 by Union General Daniel Butterfield as a song to be played at the end of the day in an army camp for “lights out”, “Taps” is one of those rare ballads we just know by heart. We hear the first three notes: “Dah, Dah, Dah” (C major chord: G, G, C), and then recognize it immediately.
It’s a song of ending, of closure, and of completion in the armed forces. The sun is set in the west. The American flag has been taken down off of the pole, carefully folded and put away. The camp is quiet, soldiers bunked down, campfires reduced to glowing embers, the only soul in sight a lone sentry on guard duty. Day is done.
It’s also a song that marks the death of a serviceman or woman, their life on this earth over. The clergy person speaks final words over the deceased: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust...” Dirt and flowers are gently tossed into the grave. Loved ones touch the casket one final time. Ancient prayers echo over the cemetery…”The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…” Life is done.
At burials with full military honors for a deceased veteran, an honor guard of two soldiers carries out one final act of farewell. “Taps” is played and then an American flag, precisely and tightly packed into a folded triangle, is presented to the veteran’s next of kin: a grieving widow, a mourning son or daughter, a tearful husband, as these words of thanks are spoken…
“On behalf of the President of the United States and the people of a grateful nation, may I present this flag as a token of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service your loved one rendered this nation.”
Even after presiding at more than a hundred such graveside services for veterans, I still get all choked up and weep when “Taps” is played and those words of gratitude are said. What gets to me is one amazing truth. At the end of a person’s life so many differing conclusions and codas could be offered to sum up that one journey from cradle to grave. Worldly accomplishments. Academic degrees. Offices held. Power wielded. A family created. Even wealth and things accumulated in the run up to death, I suppose.
But here for a veteran, the final sentiments expressed about this child of God, both to them and about them, is one of thanksgiving for service. Service to others. Service to nation. Service to a cause greater than one’s self. That’s why I always become emotional at these rituals.
For regardless of how I feel at any given moment about war or the foreign policy of my nation or the seemingly intractable human sin of lifting sword up against another, I cannot help but respect and admire those willing to put on our nation’s uniform and serve on our behalf.
Veterans challenge all of us as citizens and humans to examine our lives and ask: what are we doing in the service of others? What words will be spoken on our behalf when we are buried? What will we be remembered for? Have we made this beautiful and broken God created world a better place by being here?
So in the shadow of Memorial Day next Monday we should all thank our veterans and active duty soldiers for their sacrifice and example. I’m not so sure I’ve lived a life worthy enough to have “Taps” played at my funeral but I’m willing to try.
How about you?