Actions convey messages. Actions communicate. How one acts in regarding the U.S. flag, at different times when action is required, tells something about character — whether one was even paying attention when respect for the flag, and the ideals it portrays, was explained.
President Ford’s casket lies in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. New York Times photo by Todd Heisler.
Here are a few things you may observe during the services for President Ford:
1. On his coffin, the U.S. flag’s union will always be over President Ford’s left shoulder. This is a reversal from the usual display method for the flag; in display on a wall, the field should always be in the upper left as one observes it, the “northwest” corner (as if looking at a map); on a coffin, that would put the flag over the person’s right shoulder. Instead, on a coffin the flag is draped so the union is over the left shoulder. Also, note that a flag draped casket should be carried foot first to the grave.
2. Since Ford is a military veteran, the flag should accompany the casket to the grave, but not into it (I believe this applies also to presidents if they did not serve, but in any case it applies to Ford). The flag will be folded and presented to the family before the casket is lowered into the grave.
3. When the flag is folded at the cemetery, watch how carefully the military people will work to get each fold just right. Their goal is a perfect fold, which will leave only the blue field of stars from the union showing, in a triangular fold. To get it right, the color guard (pall bearers, I presume in this case) will take its time. If the ceremony proceeds very quickly, I would be surprised.
4. It is unlikely that there will be any ceremonial reading during the folding of the flag. Any reading given, however, would be selected by the family. In the past couple of decades, presidential funerals have been planned out well in advance of the event. Differences between Ford’s funeral and Reagan’s funeral in 2004 are due to the different plans of the families, not due to any formal procedure required by U.S. law or tradition. We’re a democratic nation, and such ceremonies are not sacred writ. (I have written here before about the mistaken idea that there is an “official” flag folding ceremony with specific meaning given to each of the 13 foldings of the flag; there is no official ceremony.)
In general, the flag will be treated respectfully. Do not expect to see a lot of flag waving during the service. When the flag is present, it will be treated soberly, with care, with special attention to getting official ceremonial details correct.
Students, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts should pay attention.
- Associated Press photo by Lawrence Jackson. Telephoto showing some of the 50 flags surrounding the Washington Monument flying at half-mast in honor of the late President Gerald Ford, with the dome of the U.S. Capitol in the background. The Capitol is more than a mile away from the Washington Monument; compression of the images by the telephoto lens makes the dome appear much closer.
Minor update: The Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Press has an informative article about flag etiquette in this situation, here.