I play trumpet. I’ve played in symphony orchestras, brass quintets, pep bands, pit orchestras, regular bands, church… pretty much everything but jazz (I have no swing). At some point during my early playing life, I was asked to play taps at a funeral. I’m not really sure what my first funeral was. Was it Heath’s? That boy who thought he could beat a logging truck on his 4 wheeler? Was it Grandma Finley’s? Some other misty memory of standing on a hillside in sunlight? I’m no longer sure.
For a while in high school, I thought I could make a little extra money on the side by playing taps for veteran’s funerals. I contacted the funeral home to let them know I was available, and read the obituaries to see if any veterans had died lately.
Then I actually got called upon to play a funeral. Maybe it was Heath’s. I remember his best. I don’t recall if he was actually in the army. I think so. He got drunk and drove his truck into a lake and didn’t make it back out again. This couldn’t have been more than a year or so after graduation. He was, I think, in my sister’s class. It took them a while to find his body. I stood across the grave from his brother and girlfriend, and watched their faces during the service.
Taps always comes last.
I hate getting paid for funerals. I remember that they paid me $40 for that funeral. Two crisp twenties. It seemed like blood money.
During my youth I played mostly in the funerals of those I knew. My great-grandmother. My grandfather. The old codger at the American Legion. Heath. I still volunteer my services when folks I know die. Vickie — so young. Theron Lemly — not young at all.
When I moved to Massachusetts, I signed up with an organization called Bugles Across America. The basic idea is this: any service person who has served their country deserves a real live bugler at their funeral — not a CD player or MP3 player. We get requests to play taps at graveside services, and we show up and play. It has been a fascinating and rewarding way of volunteering.
One of the remarkable things to me about this is just how DIFFERENT each service is. Many of the services I have played have been for aged WWII vets. Those feel different. There is sadness and loss, but the grief is muted. At the service I played yesterday, the family seemed to be having a grand time getting together and chatting. I remember distinctly the service of a greatly decorated Chinese-American veteran, in the Mt. Auburn cemetery in spring. They turned away from the casket when it was lowered, so as not to watch. His grandson stood tall and strong with fierce tears in his eyes. They gave me a red envelope with money and a piece of candy — so I would take away good luck from the funeral.
I remember a service on one of the most glorious days of early summer with a stunningly blue sky. I was playing hookie from work to make it. I hung out with the grave diggers and testosterone-laden, big-truck-driving Marine color guard for nearly an hour in the bright sunlight. The transformation when the hearse pulled in and the grave diggers disappear (I always think of how little they have changed since Shakespeare portrayed them) and the color guard goes all rigid is amazing.
I remember a service where I played up on a hill and never actually spoke to any member of the funeral party.
The saddest of the funerals I have played for them was for an active duty army officer on leave from Iraq. He committed suicide. It was last winter around this time. The snow was thick and deep and the world was caught in iron bars. The army folks vetted me about 3000% more than usual. (Apparently the last active duty funeral they had, their MP3 player malfunctioned to the displeasure of an attending general.) They were afraid I was a protester sneaking in to screw up the funeral. The patriot guard (the intimidating folks with motorcycles who fend off the nutjobs from that Baptist church) was there in full intimidation mode. They had actually plowed a path for me to the flagpole where I stood to play. I was too far away to hear the service, but not so far I couldn’t see the destitution on the faces of his family. I was afraid that one person would throw themselves into the grave with him. He had a 21 gun salute, too.
Taps is 24 notes. Not hard to play. It’s very simple. It’s also the part of every funeral where the stoics start crying. As the last part of the funeral, it truly marks the end. If that space between death and interment is a halfway point between life and death, the tape on the very last space of being runs out with the 24th note. The hardest part of taps is not crying yourself.
I do not volunteer as often as I might wish. Most of the requests are a bit far for me to get to. I have a full time job and two little boys. There’s often not a ton of warning. But when I do play, it is an honor and a privilege.