13 Folds

“On behalf of the President of the United States and the Chief of Naval Operations, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to this Country and a grateful Navy.” “God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America.”   
And with those words, the young Naval officer solemnly placed the folded  casket flag into my arms.  My heart broke with the emotion of the moment as I clutched the flag to my heart and the tears poured down my face – he slowly saluted, nodded to me and he and the other honor guard solemnly and slowly exited the tent erected over the gravesite of my father.  This was July 5th –  the day after Independence Day when my Dad was laid to rest in the same cemetary where my Mom was buried 13 years earlier.
Selective blindness… sometimes we can look right at a thing for so long it doesn’t register on our consciousness.  For years I’ve seen the familiar tricorner shape of american flags in ceremonial display boxes, the deep blue of the flag contrasted with the crisp white stars.  I’ve seen them here and there all my life, in offices, on shelves, in display cabinets and in the office backgrounds of various people being interviewed on television.  I remember thinking something trite like ‘how cool is that’ or idly wondering how someone  came to possess such a thing. I’ve also heard of ceremonial flags that are flown briefly above a state or national capitol building that are given or awarded as keepsakes.  Beyond a cursory glance I never gave the provenance of these folded flags much thought.  Until now.
I see those flags now and I know the difference.  Now I know that the flag that Im seeing most often is a ceremonial flag, due to the small triangle.  The ceremonial flag measures 3’x5′.  A military casket flag measures by comparison 9.5’x5′ and when it is folded properly, lengthwise and then folded again, it can be folded in the triangle pattern exactly 13 times.  Typically it is taken from the casket and folded by an honor guard at the gravesite and then presented to the next of kin with all the gravity and solemnity of that ceremony – it is a wonderful, majestic thing to see the honor, love and care that goes into the ceremony.  At the same time I wish that nobody ever had to experience this ceremony and receive this flag. 

I am seriously proud of my Dad, that he served with honor in the Navy.  And as I reflect on the events that marked his passing, I also feel that we’ve added to our family.  We are part of a different, larger family now, a family filled with thousands and thousands of people – faces that I do not know and probably never will. Yet we are family nonetheless, as we are bound together in a sense by our shared experience – that our kin now is laid to rest and we have this folded flag as a symbol of their service and also to mark their passing.

I will never look at a US flag so folded in the same way again.   
Rest well, Pops.  I love you.