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June 29, 2009 8:03 PM   Subscribe

If a military veteran chooses not to actively remember or discuss their military service (probably due to painful memories) in life, is it appropriate to go the extra mile to recognize their service in death?

My grandfather, a WWII Veteran, passed away this morning. While discussing the plans and some memories with Mom, I learned a little more of his military service and am considering proposing to Mom and her siblings that he be honored by the Minnesota chapter of the Patriot Guard during the ceremonies. But I have a dilemma, potentially unfounded because of my bumbling social skills, so I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Grandpa was never one to talk about his service... I knew very little about his time in the military until just today. He would always talk more about trips that he took with Grandma, his business, pretty much all aspects of his life besides his tours of duty. From some of the discussion with Mom, I learned that he was deeply involved, and faced death, and the death of his comrades, many times; some things he never even told Grandma about.

To my knowledge, he never kept any tokens or signs of his service... no medals, no uniforms displayed on the wall, no flag in the yard. If you didn't know him and were in his house you would never even think of him as having been a service member. The only hint of his acknowledgment was his desire to be interred at the National Cemetery here in Minnesota.

Aside from an uncle who served in Viet Nam, none of the other 6 aunts and uncles were ever in the service; this was not the "military" family, although it's pretty clear that the military influenced the childrens' upbringing - everything very formalized and strict, from what I'm told.

Anyway, forgive me if this sounds naive. My question is, for someone who didn't choose to really publicize his service to the country, is it appropriate to ask the Patriot Guard to honor him at the cemetery? Am I making a poor assumption that he would welcome the recognition? Is there something to be said for the concept of now that he's gone and can see and understand things on whatever that higher plane may be, he would be honored by such a recognition?

I certainly wouldn't want to be presumptuous and assume automatically that he would want this. Am I overthinking this? Please help me make sure I'm not going to suggest this idea and have it turn into an awkward and inappropriate situation. Thanks, everyone.
posted by SquidLips to Human Relations (20 answers total)
Response by poster: Clarification: The Minnesota Patriot Guard is part of a national organization actually called the Patriot Guard Riders. Sorry for the oops.
posted by SquidLips at 8:09 PM on June 29, 2009

The only hint of his acknowledgment was his desire to be interred at the National Cemetery here in Minnesota.

To me, this is more than a hint - it's an expression of his desire to be buried as a Veteran, so I think that your idea is a good one. That said, his death is likely more significant to your mother and her siblings than it would be for you... so suggest the idea - if your mother agrees, run with it and help with the planning... and if she doesn't like the idea, let it go. I'm so sorry for your loss, and admire your concern about honoring your grandfather in the best possible way.
posted by moxiedoll at 8:11 PM on June 29, 2009

I'm sorry for your loss.

My own grandfather was similary low-key about his own service - it wasn't a deep dark secret, he just didn't talk about it much, despite the fact that he was in the South Pacific and -- as I later learned -- suffered with malaria he caught there for much of the rest of his life. Other than that, it sounds like he was a lot like your grandfather -- no medals, no uniforms. There may have been a flag, but I don't remember too well -- Grandpa was way more interested in his beagles.

Something did happen at his service which was small and tasteful, but still low-key. When the casket was brought to the cemetery, there was a flag draped on it, and before it was interred, a couple people folded it, and then one of them presented it to my father with a short statement saying that they were giving it to him in honor of my grandfather's service. My father wasn't expecting that, he said later.

That could very well have been the Patriot Guard, for all I know -- but if it was, it was low-key enough that it didn't seem out of character for my grandfather. It sounds like something this simple would be a small way to acknowledge your grandfather's service without making a big Thing about it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:13 PM on June 29, 2009

Ask your mother and her siblings whether they think he'd want it. In the absence of specific instructions from him about what kind of service he'd like, this is a family decision. Don't push the issue if they aren't keen on the idea, but it doesn't hurt to ask, "Do you think Granddad would have wanted any acknowledgment of his military service during the ceremony?" and see where the conversation goes from there.
posted by decathecting at 8:13 PM on June 29, 2009

Are there any surviving veterans that served with him and that he stayed in contact with nearby? My mother's father, also a WWII vet, passed away a few years ago and several veterans of about his age pushed their remaining physical capacity to the limit to attend his burial. Be sure to find out if he corresponded with anyone in that sort of situation, as they (in their ever-dwindling numbers) will probably wish to be notified.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:15 PM on June 29, 2009

My brother is a decorated war veteran who wants nothing more than to forget that period of his life ever existed - he certainly doesn't want it celebrated in any way when he dies, and I'd feel weird if anyone thought that it was appropriate to make a big deal about his military service upon his death.

If it's a part of a life which someone wanted to leave behind them in life, then focusing on it in death is akin to mentioning a past criminal act or affair in some ways - it happened, but it's not how they want people to remember them. To my brother, it would be honouring something of which he is not proud.

Perhaps someone who served with your grandfather is more aware of his wishes.
posted by Lolie at 8:37 PM on June 29, 2009

When push comes to shove, your grandfather is, well, dead. Whatever you do at the funeral, he won't mind, no matter your beliefs about death. The funeral is for the living.

If you, the living, feel like it would be appropriate to have a military or veteran's aspect to his funeral, then it's appropriate to talk about with the rest of his surviving family. At the least, if there's nothing in his will or related documents to say that he specifically didn't want anything like that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:48 PM on June 29, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the comments so far. I felt I should mention that the only reason I'm bringing this up here, as opposed to just proposing to the family, is that because the rest of the family is in various states of travel / busy-ness / otherwise difficult to reach, the only one I really am able to suggest this to right now is my mom. And I know her well enough to know - especially in her current state - that if I suggest it, she will immediately jump at it because it's something she would enjoy, without ever consulting the rest of the siblings or considering its overall appropriateness from Grandpa's perspective. There's not enough time to discuss it and make arrangements once all the family is actually here, so I'd rather get a general opinion before I suggest it, since if I do, it will happen.

The PGR is, depending on your opinion, not exactly low key. They're bikers who volunteer to pay their respects to military veterans by offering color guard escorts at funeral services. But done in a very respectful, reverent way. From the two other funerals I've attended at Ft. Snelling recently, it seems that the flag presentation to the family is a standard procedure of a military burial.

Mom and I did in fact talk about the "Army Buddies" thought. Grandpa apparently only had once close friend after his service was over, that being the brother of an army friend from his platoon / unit that was KIA with whom he kept in contact for awhile, but sounded like is no longer with us or lost contact long ago and little is known about who they were (no thanks to the limited communication regarding his Army days).
posted by SquidLips at 8:54 PM on June 29, 2009

The only hint of his acknowledgment was his desire to be interred at the National Cemetery here in Minnesota.

Is this for sentimental or financial reasons? Burial in a national veterans cemetery is free, something many veterans of your father's era are aware of.
posted by availablelight at 9:09 PM on June 29, 2009

I don't want to sound presumptuous (I don't know much about your situation, or US funeral culture in general) but it seems there would be a better way to honour a person's military service than by using an organisation like the Patriot Guard Riders. They seem to be fairly political (or at least very vocal about the whole "freedom isn't free" thing) and it looks like military service isn't a requirement for membership. To me, this abstraction and glorification of the military seems to be at odds with a person who, from your description, didn't like to discuss their military service, in part due to the very personal effects it had on them and the friends who served with them.

There is a difference between honouring past military service and unquestionably legitimising future military action, which is something I think you would risk doing if you go with the Riders. Do you have someone who actually has knowledge of military service - someone from a local veteran's association, for example - who could say a few words instead?
posted by fearthehat at 9:12 PM on June 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

When push comes to shove, your grandfather is, well, dead. Whatever you do at the funeral, he won't mind, no matter your beliefs about death. The funeral is for the living.

When my partner died, I had a private cremation precisely because honouring his wishes was more important to me than providing for the wishes of others. There was - literally - no funeral. I advised people that they were more than welcome to hold their own memorial services - which a couple of the organisations with which he was closely involved did - but that my children and I would not be attending them. We haven't taken any part in any later memorialisations of him, either - one of the organisations of which he was a founding member has named their building after him, another has a scholarship which bears his name.

So while I agree that funerals are for "the living", families are under no obligation to arrange funerals with regard to the wishes of everyone who knew the deceased and who has a "good idea" about how to honour their memory. Like childbirth and weddings, the wishes of those most directly affected should be paramount.

Military units here do acknowledge the passing of former members if they're advised of the death and they do generally offer to be involved in the funeral if that is requested by the family. In fact, WWII veterans deaths are acknowledged very publicly here as there are few of them still surviving - unfortunately, this leads to media coverage the family may not have wanted, so you might want to check whether you'd be oopening your family up to unwanted media intrusion.
posted by Lolie at 9:20 PM on June 29, 2009

A lot of World War II veterans did not discuss their service time. That doesn't mean they didn't think about it, or that it wasn't important. They did what they were instructed to do: return to civilian life and get on with things, and not dwell on their experiences. So his quietness about that isn't unusual.

I'm the granddaughter of two WWII vets and so have been to two funerals where service was acknowledge, one low-key and one not. I agree that you should contact formal branches and not go with this biker group - I can't imagine that would mean anything to your grandfather or make much sense for those remembering him. The actual service branch acting in tradition might, though. You can start pursuing all your questions about where, how and who here at this Military Funeral Honors web page.

Even if your grandfather chose the national cemetery only for financial reasons, he probably wasn't ill disposed to the idea, so he'd probably not be ill disposed to the idea of military honors at his service. I'm inclined to encourage you to include the flag ceremony and maybe Taps. They're beatiful rituals. And he served in World War II. Part of his life was this very important piece of history. He was willing to make a contribution, and he took a huge risk.

I wonder if while you wait for everything to get organized you could find out his unit and mode of service and such and look up the message boards for his group. You can often see what they did when, where they were, and what people have to say about their experience. It's a good way to humanize the story and fill in some of the blanks in the lives of those many silent veterans who came home and went about their business.
posted by Miko at 9:40 PM on June 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

My only experiences with the Patriot Guard Riders in action has been at funerals that were being protested by the Westboro Baptist Church. In those cases, the flag-waving crowd was essentially countering the hateful demonstrations, so low-key wasn't as necessary. The idea of PGRs at a normal, relatively quiet funeral, seems kind of... overdone, especially if your grandfather wasn't really into that kind of thing. I think it'd be very important to make sure all of the surviving close relatives would be comfortable with such a loud addition.

I think it'd be worthwhile to have military honors at the funeral - flag, 3-volley salute, taps, etc. That would honor his service without being quite as overwhelming as a PGR presence.

For what it's worth, my grandfather was in the military during the Korean War and very rarely speaks about his service, even with me (I am a servicemember too), but he's also indicated that he wishes to be buried in a veterans cemetery with some of those military touches. He's very quiet about the time he spent overseas, but it's still important to him.
posted by lullaby at 11:56 PM on June 29, 2009

I'm sorry for your loss. My grandpa passed away earlier this year. As for your question, I would talk it over with your grandma and mother. Tell them that you feel your grandpa's wish of being buried in a national cemetery sounds like he wishes to be remembered as a vet. As for your grandpa not telling you his war stories, my God-father was a scout in WWII. He never mentioned it to me once. I think it is something that a lot of people do not want to remember.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:00 AM on June 30, 2009

When I was in the Army I was on several occasions tasked to be the officer who presented the flag at veteran's funerals. I can say it was one of the jobs I thought most important and was proudest of performing. You should talk to the funeral director who is taking care of his remains about having a military representative present. They will know how to arrange it, particularly if he is being buried at a military cemetery. It is very common and completely appropriate to recognize his service. Even if he didn't talk about it, it was important and appreciated. I am sorry for your loss.
posted by procrastination at 6:29 AM on June 30, 2009

My father was also a WWII vet, and didn't talk much about his experiences during the war -- even to my mom who was also a WWII vet -- but he loved the Navy and stayed in the Naval Reserves for almost 20 years after the war ended.

Shortly before he passed away last August, he indicated that he wanted to be cremated in the uniform, then have his ashes scattered at sea. (The Navy will do this for any of their honorably-discharged veterans.)

I am currently reading the letters he wrote to his parents and sister during the war. Even the letter written the day after his ship was severely damaged and several crewmen died was chatty and made no mention of what had occurred.

I guess what I'm trying to express here is that WWII veterans were always inordinately proud of their service and many (most? all?) were forever changed by it, even if they kept the details to themselves. Your grandfather's wish to be buried in a national cemetery conveys his desire, I believe, to have his service recognized at his death.

Here's a little-known fact: The VA will provide, at no charge, a US flag that can be used for his burial service.
posted by DrGail at 6:37 AM on June 30, 2009

Best answer: IANAV(eteran), but my dad was, although he rarely talked about his time in the service. I don't think he saw anything traumatic, but it just wasn't a time in his life that he wanted to relive.

When he died, we alerted the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter. They sent two members (older guys about my dad's age, dressed in suits, but wearing their service caps) to his wake. The guys stood unobtrusively to the side, and were just...there. They came before everyone else, marched in step to the casket, saluted, and then took up positions on the side, out of the way. They stayed until everyone else had left, and reversed the process. Because they weren't wearing uniforms or otherwise making a big deal of themselves, most people thought they were old friends of my dad's.

At the cemetery, the VFW provided a color guard, a bugler to play Taps, and then 2 guys with rifles shot a salute. (I don't think it was 21 shots, but I don't really remember. They also retrieved the spent cartridges and gave them to my nieces and nephews, who were young and thought this was way cool.) They then folded the flag that had been on my dad's casket and gave it to my mom. I'm pretty sure they thanked her for my dad's service. And then they were gone. (Again, these were all older gentlemen in suits and their military caps.)

Everything was optional. My mom thought it would be nice to honor my dad's service, and make a bit of a deal over a guy who pretty much flew under the radar his whole life by being just a regular guy. I thought the guns at the cemetery was a little much, but hey, whatever.

Personally, I wouldn't call the Patriot Guard, because (IMO) their approach to honoring/remembering military service is the opposite of your grandfather's. Not that either approach is right or wrong, but they are very different. I think you can find a way to honor your grandfather's service without really calling a huge amount of attention to it, in the same way he did in life. Like I said, everything the VFW offered for my dad's funeral was optional (and free), and we could have opted for any one part of it, like just the flag for his casket.

One thing to investigate though, is if your grandfather is to be buried in a veteran's cemetery, the cemetery itself may have rules, regulations, guidelines or suggestions for how to honor someone's service. And you can also ask the funeral director for suggestions.

And my sympathies on your loss.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:00 AM on June 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I also knew very little about my grandfather's service in WWII, and I never really heard him talk about it, but we did have the Honor Guard at his funeral. He also did not have any memorabilia around the house and most of the stories & pictures I heard/saw came from my mother or other relatives.

My grandma was not alive, so the three kids really made the decision to have the Honor Guard. Honestly, I thought it was the most beautiful and memorable part of the service. My experience was very similar to SuperSquirrel's. Even though my grandfather was not very vocal about his time in the war, I do not think he would have been offended by the honor.

My sympathies to you and your family.
posted by sararah at 7:35 AM on June 30, 2009

Miko has it right in terms of where to start. Most funeral directors will know how to organize this. I suspect that you will find that your grandfather has a box where he keeps his medals and other mementos of his service. Many WWII vets simply don't discuss their service, but that does not suggest that it was not important to them or that they wouldn't be honored to be remembered in that way. I would suggest that you use the official branch of service folks and not the Patriot Guard.
posted by Lame_username at 7:48 AM on June 30, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the advice. Just to follow up, I decided against asking the MPG to attend the service. This wasn't a knock against them at all... for other people they are to be commended for the time and energy they volunteer to honor to our veterans. But SuperSquirrel had the message of the day:

I think you can find a way to honor your grandfather's service without really calling a huge amount of attention to it, in the same way he did in life.

He will be recognized for his service by a full Honor Guard service - flag presentation, gun salute, taps, etc. But I think that the Patriot Guard would be just too much; not something he would have ever asked for. (He was low-key enough to request that he not even have a wake.)

Definitely appropriate for some... but not for Grandpa. Thanks again for everyone's input.
posted by SquidLips at 10:04 PM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

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