Military Funeral/Celebration of Life – The Last Post

by Steve Pritchard-Jones

Military funerals take many forms and are a way of paying respect to men and women who have died in active service. Veterans funerals honour people who have served their country, but have since left the Armed Forces. The Last Post is sounded as a mark of respect.

Usually played on a bugle, The Last Post is a musical ‘call’ associated with military ceremonies and wartime remembrance.

What are the origins of The Last Post?

Although The Last Post is now associated with remembrance, the musical call was originally a signal sounding that the final sentry post had been inspected in a military camp inspection, and the area was secure for the night.

It was also sounded at the end of battle, so that the injured on the battlefield knew it was safe to move and retreat back to their troops to get help.

During the 19th century, the music was elongated, with pauses added to this call to make it more mournful and appropriate for remembrance purposes. After the one-minute silence which follows the The Last Post in a remembrance ceremony, the Reveille is played, which is a similar three-note tune, to mark the end of the silence.

The music was later incorporated into military funerals and played as a final farewell to symbolise that the duty of the fallen soldier was over and they could rest in peace.

The Last Post will be played all over the world on Remembrance Day but its origins had nothing to do with mourning.

Arthur Lane was a bugler in the British Army when he was captured by Japanese forces during the fall of Singapore in 1942. He spent the remainder of World War Two in PoW camps and working on the notorious Burma Railway.

But he also had a more melancholy duty. He still had his bugle with him and it was his task to sound the Last Post for each of his comrades who died during those years.

“I’d have to go and set the fires at the crematorium. The lads would build them during the day, put the bodies on, and then somebody had to be delegated to set fire to the funeral pyres, and see that they were properly burnt, so I had to do that.”

For the rest of his long life, he was haunted by nightmares. And he never played the Last Post again.

The sound of a lone bugler playing the Last Post has become one of the most distinctive sounds in the world. Eerie and evocative, it exists beyond all the usual barriers of nation, religion, race and class, charged with the memory of generations of the fallen. But it wasn’t always like this.

“At that time soldiers didn’t have wristwatches, so they had to be regulated in camp,” says Colin Dean, archivist at the Museum of Army Music in Kneller Hall. “They had to have a trumpet call or a bugle call to tell them when to get up, when to have their meals, when to fetch the post, when to get on parade, when to go to bed and all other things throughout the day.”

The soldier’s day started with the call of Reveille, and came to a close with the First Post. This indicated that the duty officer was commencing his inspection of the sentry-posts on the perimeter of the camp. The inspection would take about 30 minutes, and at the end there would be sounded the Last Post, the name referring simply to the fact that the final sentry-post had been inspected. For decades this was the sole use of the call, a signal that the camp was now secure for the night, closed till morning.

It was not until the 1850s that another role began to emerge. It was an era when many military bandsmen, and most bandmasters, were civilians and were under no obligation to accompany their regiments on overseas postings. So when a soldier died in a foreign land, there was often no music available to accompany him on his final journey. And, necessity being the mother of invention, a new custom arose of charging the regimental bugler to sound the Last Post over the grave.

There was a new mood of democracy abroad and the war memorials reflected this. And every time a memorial was unveiled, it was to the sound of the Last Post being played, now the symbol not only of death but of remembrance.

By the time that World War One broke out in 1914, the Last Post was already part of the national culture. During the war, it was played countless times at funerals in northern Europe and other theatres, and it was played at funerals, memorials and services back home. It was already becoming a familiar sound, but with mass enlistment and then conscription, the walls that had long existed between the civilian and the soldier broke down completely, and a piece of music that had once belonged exclusively to military culture was adopted by a wider society.

HG Wells said this was “a people’s war”, and the Last Post became the people’s anthem.

Steve Pritchard-Jones

Steve Pritchard-Jones

I am an independent civil celebrant conducting weddings, celebration of life/funerals, commitment, civil partnership, renewal of vows, adoption welcoming, naming, pet funerals, internment or scatter of ashes, memorials service, and even divorce ceremonies in Shropshire, West Midlands, Mid and North Wales, Derbyshire, Staffordshire & throughout the UK.