Mo. to end live performances of taps at veterans' funerals

Saturday, September 15, 2007
Sgt. Keith Buchanan, with the Military Funeral Honors program, stands at the ready with a Ceremonial Bugle Friday, Sept. 14, 2007 at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Beginning Saturday, the Missouri National Guard's honor guard members will use ceremonial bugles, outfitted with an electronic device that plays a digital recording, instead of live buglers at graves. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

ST. LOUIS -- The musician lifts a bugle to his mouth, and the 24 notes of taps echo across the cemetery, a sad and stirring call played at veterans' funerals.

But beginning today, the Missouri National Guard's honor guard members will use ceremonial bugles, outfitted with an internal electronic device that plays a digital recording. The recording will replace live buglers at graves, musicians often hired by contract.

The change isn't a welcome one for many.

"A lot of us feel strongly about losing the live buglers," said Sgt. Keith Buchanan, an honor guard working Friday at Jefferson Barracks Cemetery in St. Louis County. Though he uses the ceremonial bugle when a live bugler isn't available, he thinks veterans should have a live musician playing taps at their funerals whenever possible. It's a a show of respect for the deceased and their families.

"We want to do our best for them," he said.

SSGT. David Johnson plays a "ceremonial" bugle Friday, Sept. 14, 2007 at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Beginning Saturday, the Missouri National Guard's honor guard members will use ceremonial bugles, outfitted with an electronic device that plays a digital recording, instead of live buglers at graves.(AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

Use of the ceremonial bugle isn't new; some states have used them at graveside services for years. But there are also strong networks of professional musicians and volunteers around the nation who play taps at funerals, convinced it's an important part of honoring a deceased member of the military.

"What would you rather have for your Dad or your Uncle Bob or Uncle Joe? Memorex or the real thing?," asked Tom Day, founder of Bugles Across America. The Berwyn, Ill.-based organization has about 5,500 volunteers worldwide available to play taps at military funerals.

He said the commitment to pay buglers in Missouri had been much admired by those who keep a close eye on final respects for veterans. He said in some states, like Wisconsin and Texas, there are programs to encourage the live playing of taps.

The decision here was based on reductions in federal money for the Missouri National Guard, at a time when much of military spending is focused on the war, said Maj. Paul Kirchhoff, director of Missouri's funeral honors program for the National Guard.

"I can understand where there's the concern with the digital recording, but I think it provides the quality our veterans deserve," he said.

Staff Sgt. David Johnson demonstrated the playing of a "ceremonial" bugle Friday at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Beginning today, the Missouri National Guard's honor guard members will use ceremonial bugles, outfitted with an electronic device that plays a digital recording, instead of live buglers at graves. (Tom Gannam ~ Associated Press)

He and Staff Sgt. David Johnson visited Jefferson Barracks to provide a demonstration of how the bugles work. An honor guard member, standing at a distance from mourners, discreetly pushes a small button inside the horn, then holds it up to the mouth before the recording begins.

The Missouri National Guard posts an honor guard at veterans' grave sites upon request. Funeral honors can include the presentation of a flag and coin in Missouri, a volley fire presentation and the playing of taps, based on a family's wishes.

He said in certain situations, if someone is receiving a Medal of Honor or was killed in action, and there was a request to have taps played live, they will assist with those efforts.

Kirchhoff said he couldn't comment on what costs would be to restore the service of buglers. He said musicians have been paid $25 per service to play taps inside state cemeteries and $50 to perform it outside.

He said the honor guard has 30 to 40 of the ceremonial bugles, which cost about $300 each. The guard serves at about 700 funerals monthly in Missouri, he said.

Sgt. Keith Buchanan, places a Ceremonial Bugle in the horn of a regular bugle Friday, Sept. 14, 2007 at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Beginning Saturday, the Missouri National Guard's honor guard members will use ceremonial bugles, outfitted with an electronic device that plays a digital recording, instead of live buglers at graves.(AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

Kirchhoff said he would "absolutely" be all right with one of the electronic bugles being used at his own funeral. "I think it is high quality enough. If I didn't think so, I'd be up in arms over this."

At Jefferson Barracks, professional buglers Lorenzo Trujillo and Mary Weber had schedules of funeral services and walkie-talkies to quietly confer with one another, making sure they played at as many grave sides as possible.

They called it tragic that funds are no longer available for live musicians.

"To play taps is a very respectful and honorable way for me to give back to my country," Weber said.

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