'Fun in Funeral:' Is It OK in Private?

Fire them all. Send them all into combat. How can people be so ignorant, so unfeeling, so disrespectful, so stupid, so totally screwed up? What is wrong with these soldiers today?

Military.com readers posted outraged comments like these when the news broke about the Wisconsin National Guard funeral detail posing in disrespectful ways around a flag draped casket.


I'm with them -- fire them all! What is wrong with these people?

But as a sociologist I know this isn't about Facebook, this isn't about 'what's wrong with kids these days?' It's about how they punctured the meaning of all the rituals that go into a military funeral.

I wonder how many Gold Star widows and Gold Star moms suddenly worried whether these kind of shenanigans were going on prior to their loved one's funeral. Do we really need to add to people's pain? That makes me mad.

Most of the time I understand gallows humor in the military, but I don’t get this.

During a decade of war we have heard from wounded warriors, amputees, burn victims, soldiers assigned to mortuary duty and soldiers in combat confess to joking about things the rest of us recognize as shockingly inappropriate.

But gallows humor does its work. Used within a tight sphere of insiders, gallows humor boosts morale in the face of the unfaceable-- prison, terminal illness, war, death.

Funeral detail is a service that is about death. The job stresses perfection and practice. It is a service that means you attend funeral after funeral after funeral. It means looking in the eyes of young widows. It means soaking in sorrow.

The fact that these soldiers might use gallows humor among themselves is probably adaptive behavior. But does that make it OK?

Why don’t people understand that this kind of humor is private? It is among the most private of behaviors -- something that is acceptable only within the confines of the group of people experiencing those dark parts of life together.

I wonder if those Wisconsin National Guard members realize that this outrage isn’t about them. It isn’t about their generation or their Facebook usage or even their unit.

In the end, this is about every family in our country who has faced a flag draped casket -- especially those who have lost their young servicemember to combat.

This is about how unbearable it is to think of your child’s body making its way to Dover AFB to be prepared for burial. This is about parking yourself next to your husband's casket because that is all you can think to do.

This is about  how we human beings are so frail that we trust in ritual to hold ourselves together.

Don't these people know that there is comfort in things being done the right way? The rulers used to exactly measure ribbons on a fallen Marine’s uniform. The precise placement of hands on a flag. The half-speed of a salute.  These things are protections against the chaos of death.

The formality of a military funeral is supposed to help supply control to an uncontrollable situation.

It is why we count on the people assigned to a funeral detail to supply that kind of perfection and ultimate respect.

Public disrespect like these pictures of people clowning around a flag-draped coffin -- even a practice coffin -- drains those rituals of meaning and empties them of comfort.

Will the next widow or widower at a military funeral wonder what the funeral detail was doing right before this funeral? I would. Wouldn’t you?

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