Military funerals without a body

So, uh, here’s a morbid question inspired by nothing but…morbid curiosity.

I know there have been military members in just about every modern conflict who are “presumed dead” or, say, POW/MIA since Korea or Vietnam, and eventually declared deceased for legal purposes. I know that practice is somewhat controversial, but that’s not exactly what my question is about. It also applies to situations where someone is known to be dead, but there aren’t any sort of remains that can be interred.

I assume that in those situations, the (assumed) deceased is still eligible for a military funeral - bugles, the flag over the coffin, military pallbearers, etc. My question is…what do they do if there’s no body? If the next of kin would have a full funeral with burial for the deceased, but there’s nothing to bury? I’m sure it’s an issue that comes up, but I can’t imagine how it’s handled.

They bury an empty coffin. Burial and the ceremony that goes with it is meant for the living anyway, the whereabouts of the actual body don’t really matter.

I’m not trying to start anything, I’m just curious… Are you speaking from personal knowledge/experience here, or just speculating?

Offhand, I’d call a “funeral without a body” a “memorial service”, and I am a bit surprised that they’d go through the the entire rigmarole of burying an empty casket, but then again, people who have lost a loved one aren’t disposed to be strictly rational.



Speculation, really. But it’s not exactly far-fetched, either.
In modern wars, with high explosives involved, it’s not all together uncommon to have your Privates scattered over large areas with precious little left to I.D., let alone bury. What are they gonna tell John’s mother, that he can’t have a grave because he’s a fine red mist ?

My apologies for answering a GQ without actual firsthand knowledge, though - I could have sworn this was IMHO.

Not just your privates… most of your publics, too.


Though I suspect that if there’s anything to scrape together they would, and then put it into a casket and bury that (in case “suspect” doesn’t flag it, I’ll explicitly state that the foregoing is itself a WAG (“Wild Assed Guess”)).

Ok. I have nothing against speculation, even in GQ (like I have any right to complain; I’ve only been around here three weeks or so), I just like it clearly labeled as such in case I want to fact-check later.



I suspect that it’s historically more likely to happen when, say, a ship goes down that there be absolutely nothing to bury, as opposed to the “very small box” you might receive after an explosion.

In Arlington National Cemetery they have a section where the grave markers are very close together, I was told that is because there are no actualy bodies there, just the markers.

That’s what I was thinking - the modern military presents regrettably many opportunities for there to not be much, if anything, left - explosions, high-speed aviation accidents, submarine accidents, and as I mentioned, a POW/MIA situation.

Googling reveals that allowing Google to trawl the boards is working quite well, as this thread popped up as the first result when I searched for ‘military funerals body’, so that’s a fat lot of help. (“Hey, that’s exactly what I’m trying to figure out, but the board search didn’t find anything…oh, wait.”)

I did find this, which seems to be anecdotal but implies that an empty casket was carried to Arlington Cemetery after a pilot crashed in the ocean, but no indication of if it was buried or not, nor if that’s Official Policy.

They probably won’t have any more unknown soldiers to bury due to DNA. The body from Vietnam was identified and moved out of the tomb of the unknowns.

Well, suppose you want to be cremated, and have your ashes scattered, but you still want the big ceremony?

Most of the ceremony centers around the interment of the casket.

Without a coffin to carry, a caisson seems a bit pointless. I suppose they might keep the riderless horse, if you really wanted it.

At my dad’s burial, they simply brought a folded flag to the cemetery, and before we put his ashes into the ground, an officer presented the flag to my mother.

We had a bugler at the memorial service earlier, and we skipped the riflemen and “Taps”, but you could do those if you wanted to.

I’m not sure if you have cenotaphs in the USA; the word means “empty grave,” and pretty much every Canadian town (and British, Australian, etc.) of size has one (usually dating from the 1920s, with added plaques for 1939-45 and 1950-53). Canada’s National War Memorial in Ottawa is a good, if very large, example of the type. Here is my local cenotaph, more like the usual one in smaller communities.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s brief has been to commemorate by name, every (British) Commonwealth soldier who fell in WWI and WWII; the missing are all listed on huge monuments (particularly in France and Belgium). The monument to the missing at Thiepval, on the Somme, is huge; designed by Sir Edwin Luytens, it towers out of the trees on the old battlefield like a castle. On its walls and pillars are 73,000 names–all soldiers missing on the Somme between July and November 1916.

My sister, who was in the Navy, was cremated prior to the funeral. Everything was the same except that, instead of draping the flag over the casket, it was held up by two service members. It’s not a big difference. At least not that I could tell. I was pretty busy crying my eyes out, though.

About two years ago, someone here posted a link to a story about the Marines who are on death duty - the ones Stateside who get the job of notifying the next of kin, and the ones overseas who accompany the bodies of their comrades home.

It was heartbreaking - one anecdote in particular was about a Marine whose body was so badly damaged that they wouldn’t let his widow see it. The remains were in a shroud in the casket, with his dress blues neatly arranged on top of the shroud, to allow for an open casket funeral. His widow spent the night before the funeral sleeping on a mattress in front of his coffin in the chapel.

I tried googling for it, but without luck - there are just too many news stories brought up by “marine funeral iraq.” :frowning:

In WW II there were so many deaths that some people got notified their son died via telegram.

Interesting. I’m familiar with those, since every single French town has at least one, the standard model being the statue of a 1914 “poilu” on a pedestal, with the names on the pedestal’s 4 sides and a sprawling “to her sons who died for her, the grateful Motherland” above them. I used to wonder why the bitch was so happy about losing her kids…
Anyway. It never occured to me that those were in lieu of proper graves. I always figured the bodies were laid down properly… somewhere, either at the local graveyard or in those fields of crosses at Verdun.

Even now, 90+ years onwards, human remains occasionally turn up in Flanders. If they can be identified, they are buried under their own name, and if they were listed among the missing on those monuments, their names are taken off the monuments.

I asked my dad, who had been an officer in the Pakistan army and commanded a regiment is Kashmir. His answer, in the army there almost always is something that can be found, a bit of flesh, clothing items etc. And it is apparently the armys policy that once remains are identified they are returned to the family in a sealed coffin. It is of normal size always.

It is also done for enemy killed, he remembers returning the bodies of 4 Indians. Or what was left of them, in a sealed coffin.

I’m curious about the policy at Arlington. When we interred my dad’s ashes, we were told that it was not legal to have the ashes divided at all. (Like, put some in the cask at Arlington, leave some on my mom’s mantel, etc.) So I wonder how they feel about the “no body” scenario. And also, what happens if a body turns up later.

I remembered it, too. Very good article.

thanks for finding it!