Air Force retiree funerals change due to manpower cuts

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Madelyn Waychoff
  • Air Force Honor Guard Public Affairs NCOIC
Base honor guards across the Air Force will be changing the way they perform retiree funerals starting Nov. 1, due to manpower cuts and high operations tempo, as well as a higher number of retiree funerals than ever in Air Force history.

The formal 10-person funeral will no longer be authorized for retiree funerals. The detail will now consist of seven people to carry out the job as pall bearers, flag folders, flag presenter, bugler, spare and firing party. This is to provide a 30 percent manpower relief for retiree funeral details, and 21 percent manning relief for overall funeral details, according to Pentagon air staff.

"The main concern people had in the change of the funeral procedures was that we wouldn't be keeping with past traditions," said Staff Sgt. David Little, U.S. Air Force Honor Guard Base Honor Guard course supervisor. "Originally, the number of guardsmen was going to be lowered to five, but we didn't want to lose the pall bearing aspect so we determined that seven people would still be able to carry on all aspects of the funeral."

The new funeral sequence will have three major differences: the NCO in charge of pall bearers will also be NCO in charge of the funeral; the number of firing party members will be reduced to three; and a spare position will be added.

The new sequence begins with the NCO of pallbearers assuming the position of NCO in charge to ensure the casket and flag are situated properly in the hearse, then joining the pallbearers and calling commands to carry the casket to gravesite, and finally presenting the flag to the family while the other team members assume their roles as either the bugler, spare or firing party. The final sequences are the same. A video was released Sept. 24 documenting the new funeral, and is available on the Air Force Honor Guard website at

"Another concern we've heard is that people think we're taking away the '21-gun salute' by having only three people fire," said Sergeant Little. "But what people don't realize is that we've never done a '21-gun salute' during military funeral honors. What we do is fire three volleys in unison. Only the president receives a 21-gun salute, and only the Navy and Army have ever performed this.

"The three volleys come from an old battlefield custom where the two warring sides would cease hostilities to clear their dead from the battlefield, then would fire three volleys to alert the other side their dead had been properly cared for and they were ready to resume the battle. The fact that we had seven people firing the three volleys was a coincidence."

But overall the reaction has been positive, said Sergeant Little. "Retirees are grateful; they knew the Air Force was going to make changes, so they're happy we kept all aspects," he said. "The bases have been having a hard time supporting the 10-person funeral so this eases their personnel strain, and the base honor guards are happy with the new sequence."

Training for the new sequence is not difficult either, said Sergeant Little. "We've had a lot of phone calls about the video, but what is important to remember is that all the manuals are the same - it's what you've already been trained on - the only differences are the sequences, and those are narrated to help each person understand their role. We're not teaching movements, we're teaching the sequence," he said. "The order of events is the same as the 10-person; the only real differences are the addition of the spare and the sequence at the back of the hearse."

More information detailing the background behind the change can be found on the honor guard website at

For more information or questions related to training or procedural guidance, call the Air Force Honor Guard training office at (202) 404-7498 or (202) 767-3603, or logon to For more information or questions regarding funeral policy or protocol, call the Pentagon air staff at (703) 604-4928.