Final Notes — ‘Taps’, ‘The Last Post’, and Other Military Funeral Tunes

An army bugler blows a tune in a Civil War-era army camp. Buglers like this one would signal the end of the day by playing Taps.

An army bugler blows a tune in a Civil War-era army camp. (Image source: Flickr)

“Both the Last Post and Taps share a common lineage. Each are derivatives of a Dutch tune from the 1600s called the Taptoe.”

TAPS, THE SONG THAT’S BEEN PLAYED AT American military funerals for more than a century, was written 150 years ago this month.

According to a this video from the American news and current events program CBS This Morning (available here), the haunting melody is still played on average 30 times each day for visitors and tourists at Arlington National Cemetery alone. While Taps has worked its way into the public consciousness as a tune associated with burials, its origins were far less sombre.

(Taps, as performed by a member of the official U.S. Navy Band)

Originally composed by Union Army bugler Oliver Norton during the American Civil War, it’s derived from an 1835 bugle call entitled The Scott Tattoo. Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield of the Army of the Potomac commissioned Norton to come up with a memorable sequence that would signal the lights-out command to the entire encampment. The Yankee musician first performed Taps while stationed at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia one evening in July of 1862. Units on both sides of the battlefield heard the tune and began playing it themselves in the weeks that followed.

One artillery officer found the song so moving he ordered it performed at the funeral of a corporal from his unit. Soon Taps was sounding at both the day’s end as well as the conclusion of American military burials. Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1891 that the now-famous song became an official part of army memorial services. It’s still played at sunset in U.S. military installations around the world.

The Last Post

Long before American buglers were blowingTaps, the British army had come up with its own ceremonial tune. The song that is now used throughout the Commonwealth at Remembrance Day ceremonies and military funerals, The Last Post, also began as a bugle call marking the end of a day.

(The Last Post, as performed by a bugler with the Royal Australian Air Force)

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the call was blown a little bit at a time at dusk as a camp’s duty officer toured the surrounding sentry posts. Each stop along the inspection route would be announced with more of the tune being performed. The haunting final notes were sounded as the officer finished his nightly rounds, signalling to the entire company that it was time to bed down.

Both the Last Post and Taps share a common lineage. Each are derivatives of a Dutch tune from the 1600s called the Taptoe. This melody announced to a regiment that the beer taps were being closed for the night, again marking the end of the day.

It’s likely that English troops adopted a variation of the Taptoe while serving in the Netherlands sometime in the 17th or 18th centuries. Historians believe it influenced both the Last Post as well as the forerunner of Taps, The Scottish Tattoo.

MORE ON CEREMONIAL MILITARY TUNES

  • While the origins of Taps are well documented, a number of myths of how the song came to be still persist. One tells the story of a Union officer who after a battle discovered the body of a fallen Confederate was actually his own son who was a musician in peacetime. When denied permission to bury the boy with full honours, the Union officer held a small impromptu private ceremony. He asked a company bugler to perform a call using the musical notes scribbled on a scrap of paper in his dead son’s pocket — presumably a melody the boy was working on. That song was Taps. While it’s certainly a moving story, it’s untrue.
  • Also known as the Butterfly Lullaby and The Day is Done, one version of Taps was written with accompanying lyrics. They are traditionally sung at day’s end in American Boy Scouts and Girl Guides camps. Click here to read the verses.
  • Britain’s The Last Post has been played every night at the Menin Gate in Ypres to commemorate the British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought and died there during the First World War. The tradition began in the 1920s, but was interrupted for four years during the Nazi occupation of Belgium. As soon as the area surrounding the Menin Gate was cleared of Germans in the fall of 1944, townsfolk immediately resumed the evening ritual – even though much of the surrounding area was still in enemy hands.
  • The German army’s funeral lament is a Ludwig Uhland tune entitled Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden or I Had a Comrade. Chilean army burials use the same call, as that country’s military fashions itself on Prussian traditions. It’s played in Austria as well. Even France has used it on occasion.

NOTE: If any of this blog’s international readers would like to comment on what tunes, marches or songs have historically been played at their own country’s military funerals, feel free to post it here. We’d love to learn more. 

12 comments for “Final Notes — ‘Taps’, ‘The Last Post’, and Other Military Funeral Tunes

  1. Dilip Desai
    1 May, 2014 at 8:00 am

    Has “Il Silenzio’, first played by Nino Rossi (an Italian), an equally evocative ‘farewell” melody , ever been adapted as a tune to be played at formal military funerals or memorial services by any country ?

    • admin
      1 May, 2014 at 10:06 am

      Thanks for that. Here’s a link for any readers who want to hear the song.

      • Dilip Desai
        2 May, 2014 at 4:06 am

        Thanks for the pleasure of hearing the song once again. Still waiting for an answer to my query from your info bank or other readers.

        • admin
          2 May, 2014 at 8:18 am

          Sorry… I don’t know the answer. Interesting tune though, reminiscent of both Taps and the Last Post.

        • Tony Harris
          17 November, 2015 at 1:25 pm

          From Wikipedia; “In a cemetery about six miles from the Dutch city of Maastricht lie buried 8,301 American soldiers who died in “Operation Market Garden” in the battles to liberate the Netherlands in the fall and winter of 1944–5. Everyone of the men buried in the cemetery, as well as those in the Canadian and British military cemeteries has been adopted by a Dutch family who tend the grave and keep alive the memory of the soldier they have adopted. It is the custom to keep a portrait of “their” foreign soldier in a place of honour in their home. Each year on Liberation Day, memorial services are held for the men who died to liberate the Netherlands. The day concludes with a concert, at which “Il Silenzio” has always been the concluding piece.

          In 2008 the soloist was a 13-year-old Dutch girl, Melissa Venema, backed by André Rieu and the Royal Orchestra of the Netherlands”

      • Billie Roys
        10 November, 2014 at 1:39 pm

        Excellent!

  2. Dilip Desai
    11 November, 2014 at 6:18 am

    Thanks for the write-up on the various funeral and commemoration ceremony tunes around the world. In India the Army, Navy and Air Force continue the British Commonwealth tradition. The honour guard first salutes with “Present Arms” and then switches to “Reverse Arms” following which the ‘Last Post’ is played. After observing a two-minute silence, the honour guard reverts to “Order Arms” and the ‘Rouse’ is sounded to mark the end of the ceremony.

    • admin
      11 November, 2014 at 7:53 am

      Thanks very much for contributing that and thanks for reading!

  3. Trevor Long
    11 November, 2016 at 4:18 pm

    The Australian bugler depicted on this site is an Army bugler not Air Force.

  4. Kerry
    21 November, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    I’ve played the Last Post many times for Military occasions and funerals etc. But recently I have been requested to play it outside of a “Military” setting. The occasion was in remembrance of those who have lost there lives in car accidents. Some how this doesn’t seem appropriate to me, what are the thoughts of others? I consider it to be in memory of those who have had Military service and a reminder of those who have lost there lives serving their country.

    • 22 November, 2016 at 12:28 pm

      I would tend to agree. No disrespect to people who died in traffic accidents or their families, but The Last Post probably isn’t appropriate in such circumstances.

  5. Ruth Webster
    19 July, 2017 at 9:45 pm

    I am a totally disabled USAF veteran. My ancestral heritage is Scottish, as my dad was 1/2 Scottish. I am very proud of him and am very proud of my Scottish heritage.

    I would like to know if “The Last Post” can be played at the beginning of my military funeral to honor my Scottish heritage as well as my military service. I know they can play Taps at the conclusion of my memorial, but I have always, since the first time I heard it, loved “The Last Post” as well.

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