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As coronavirus shrinks demand for military funerals, Maryland guardsmen offer scaled-down honors for veterans

For those mourning a loved one during the coronavirus pandemic, the loss comes with the sacrifice of rituals meant to bring closure. Funerals must be kept to the bare minimum. The comforting touch of a hug or a shoulder to cry on is risky.

But for families of veterans, respect does not have to be sacrificed.

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Honor Guard soldiers, part of the Maryland National Guard, are still offering funeral services for military personnel — albeit from a distance.

“It is very different. We have to take more things into consideration as far as social distancing and making sure my teams are safe and the family members as well,” said Sgt. Jonathan McClone of Severn, a training officer for the honor guard.

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“The vibe and the aura of the ceremonies now are even more sad ... We only get to do this once and I feel like the family members who don’t get to make it are missing out.”

McClone said families are delaying burials because of travel restrictions and social distancing.

He reports a 65% decrease of military funeral honors requests across Maryland. Before COVID-19, he said the organization averaged about 350 to 400 military ceremonies a month. The veterans cemeteries in Crownsville and Owings Mills are their busiest, McClone said.

Sgt. Brent Beck, one of the soldiers performing honors in Anne Arundel, said he understands why families want to delay. But his team is trying to make services more personal.

A typical Honor Guard detail usually entails six to 21 soldiers pulling the American flag off of the casket at the cemetery, folding it as a bugler plays “Taps,” and presenting it to the family standing nearby.

Now, three soldiers wear black ceremonial masks (made by McClone’s grandmother-in-law, Mae Avila, of Laurel). They walk around to the back of the hearse, salute the casket and the flag as the bugler plays “Taps,” and present the flag to the family through the window of a vehicle they watch the detail from inside.

“It still looks kind of ceremonial, not like we’re just winging it so to speak," Beck said.

Families are still grateful for the services, even if they’re scaled-down, Beck said. Servicemembers didn’t always get to act at opportune times, he said, so he’ll do the same for them.

“The sounding of taps and the way we fold and present the flag still takes precedence over what’s going on,” Beck said.

“As honor guardsmen, we feel it’s necessary to carry on with this tradition no matter what.”

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