How did they die? This question, asked at funerals, wakes, and vigils, time and time again, seeks more than satisfying simple curiosity. We ask because the answer gives us insight into someone’s life and helps us understand the finality of the moment when it all ended. Or perhaps we ask because the question of how one died has a tidier answer than how one lived.
In the hot early summer of 2005, someone asked me that question and the answer was simple: A patriot had died a patriot’s death. A boy who had grown up around Army planes and tanks had died a Marine in a war on the other side of the world. My cousin was killed by a roadside bomb in western Iraq, along with four of his brothers-in-arms.
My family answered the question with pride. We were proud of Devon’s decision to join the Marine Corps, proud that he needed a waiver because he was so young, just 17 when 9/11 prompted him to reach out to a recruiter. I was proud to think of him, stoic and grown, at his going-away dinner, assuring me that he “was just a driver,” making me believe he was safe inside the armored walls of his military vehicle. I was humbled to hear that Marines who never knew him had driven hours to pay their respects, because the men and women Devon served with were still fighting in the war that killed him. As a 19-year-old civilian, I felt my chest ache with pride, or at least that was the only pain I could recognize.
Not all funerals feel this way. The ones I’d attended before were different, sometimes shocking, like classmates killed in car accidents. Or, less shocking, and more inevitable and even somewhat boring, like when we laid to rest our grandparents, or someone sick and elderly. A military funeral falls somewhere in between, and yet it’s altogether unique, a culmination of a leader’s worst fears, a partner’s daily worry, and a sharp reminder of how quick a life can end before life really starts. We were supposed to be proud burying a Marine; pride is the easiest to feel, the most patriotic, and to an extent, the most comforting. Focusing on the dignity and valor of a death made it bearable to look people you loved in the eye, who were going through unimaginable pain. It allowed you to make jokes about Jell-O cakes and favorite childhood stories.
Pride pulls you upright and expands your chest. And this swelling pushes out the other emotions, each jockeying for the right to surface. Pride takes up too much space for anything else. Until it doesn’t. Until the balloon pops.
For me, that balloon pops during Taps. I can make it through the violence of the 21 shots. I can synch my heart with the crack of gunfire, taking in the smell of cordite in my nose and watching the puffs of smoke appropriately rising towards the heavens. I can fixate on the shell cases dropping to the grass without a sound. Those are the images of strength and honor, masculine and stoic. We can withstand those.
But Taps is the song of darkness, extinguishing the light and the pride, making way for the frustration and anger to rush in, filling the space with pain. Taps doesn’t harden you; it breaks you. It’s felt from the inside out, scraping away any bits of defense, leaving you raw and shaking from the first note.
Taps will always return me to that first military funeral, when I was a teenager and understood the raw grief and novel pride. But with each uniformed body lowered into the ground, with each rendition of that baleful melody, I found another emotion. On one morning, it was anger at a Marine who survived a war only to die by his own hand. It was fear that I may have the same darkness that he couldn’t overcome. Or guilt, wondering if there were something I could have done just a bit better to protect those in danger. On another bright afternoon, Taps brought helplessness and more anger at a war that only seemed to give us more bodies, more bloodshed, and more pain.
These funerals triggered more than the question, “How did they die?” They left me questioning the service I so deeply loved. They left me questioning the decisions of leaders I trusted and my own complacency in the whole damn thing. They left me wondering what was worth it, what was worth all that pain and sacrifice, and what kind of legacy I would leave.
Military funerals make great b-roll, the imagery strong enough for Memorial Day memes or inspiration for the next line of VetBro T-shirts. But it’s more complicated than that. The pain of the funeral, it’s sharper and more acute, duller and more persistent. It’s not a clean pride—it’s messy. It’s a mess of anger and regret, guilt and frustration all soaked in pain and sadness.
“How did you know him?” I asked one of the sharply dressed Marines attending Devon’s services. “I didn’t, but he was one of us,” he answered.
That’s when I knew I wanted to be a part of that kind of closeness and bond.
I chose to join the most ragtag and chaotic group of all, the Marines. There, I would answer and ask the question, “What happened?” again and again, in Southern churches and New Jersey baseball fields, in small-town cemeteries and desert chapels—hot and sandy with foreign dirt and familiar pain. “What happened?” An aneurysm, a training accident, a mishap, KIA, roadside bomb, suicide. Every time, I answered with grief, frustration, anger, pain, hopelessness, a new layer of emotion rising and falling, making room for the next. Every time I answered differently. Every time I answered with just a bit of pride and a bit of something else.
The smell of cordite would be reassigned to another memory, as would the crack of rifles and the soft falling of shells. Folded flags would become almost commonplace, a standard upheld twice a day, but Taps would stay forever in those messy moments of anguish and hopelessness. I’ve heard it thousands of times since then, in lonely places and on days filled with joy, but it always feels the same. Taps signals the end of a watch, the closing of a day, the finality of death, a finality that eternally repeats.