It’s not often a 21-gun salute, Manson man says

Memorial Day. Bittersweet, to say the least.

While flowers placed in cemeteries give them a festive, happy look, the flowers are there because someone died, and those left behind want to tell the world they still love and miss that person.

But any ceremonies held on Memorial Day are held to honor the war dead, a custom started to remember those who died in the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers. Today, those ceremonies celebrate the lives of service men and women, both living and dead.

It’s one of those things that will hold you in its grasp from the first time you see it.

It’s the simplicity of the tribute, I think, that’s most moving, no matter where you are. Several years in a row, my husband and I spent Memorial Day in Dallas, Ore., with our good friends, Vicki and David Bailey. Dave would pick whatever flowers were in bloom outside their home, and we’d spend the morning visiting small cemeteries around the area. Each ceremony contained a 21-gun salute.

At least, that’s what I always called it. Until Gordon Hans, of Manson, explained the difference between a 21-gun salute and seven riflemen firing three volleys. He’s pretty adamant about this difference and sent me an envelope full of information pulled from the Arlington National Cemetery website.

The website explains the practice of firing three rifle volleys over graves originated in the old custom of halting the fighting to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once each army had cleared the dead, it would fire three volleys to indicate the dead had been removed and they were ready to go back to the fight.

The fact that the firing party had seven riflemen each firing three volleys did not constitute a 21-gun salute, Hans said. The information he sent came from so you can read it all there if you have the inclination and a computer. There’s a lot more information than I could ever tell you here.

The website says: “Today the national salute of 21 guns is fired in honor of a national flag, the sovereign or chief of state of a foreign nation, a member of a reigning royal family and the President, ex-President and President-elect of the United States. It is also fired at noon of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President or President-elect.”

It’s a 21-gun salute, then, only for such people. For commoners, Hans said, there may be 21 shots fired, but these are merely volleys, not a salute. Maybe that could be said better, but you get the idea.

This salute and the playing of taps gives cemetery ceremonies on Memorial Day enough emotion to last for weeks.

From the same website: “‘Taps’ is an American call, composed by the Union Army’s Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield. The call soon became known as ‘Taps’ because it was often tapped out on a drum in the absence of a bugler. The call was officially adopted by the U.S. Army in 1874.”

Customs such as these should live forever.

So long friends, until the next time when we’re together.

Sandy Mickelson, retired lifestyle editor of The Messenger, may be reached at