Funeral services of great magnificence evolved as customs (from what is known about early Christian mourning) in the 6th century. To this day, no religious ceremonies are conducted with more pomp than those intended to commemorate the departed. The funerals of soldiers, more than any other ceremony, have followed an old pattern as the living honor the brave dead.
The first general mourning proclaimed in America was on the death of Benjamin Franklin in 1791 and the next on the death of George Washington in 1799. The deep and widespread grief occasioned by the death of the first president assembled a great number of local people for the purpose of paying him a last tribute of respect. On Wednesday, 18 Dec. 1799, attended by military honors and the simplest but grandest ceremonies of religion, his body was deposited in the family vault at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Due to slow communications and travel of the time period, community services across the country commemorating his life continued several weeks after his passing as word of his death spread.
Another national observance early in the country’s history commemorated the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on July 4, 1826. Although known as old rivals, both men were heroes and respected leaders in these early years.
The first national funeral marking the first time the nation mourned as one occurred April 19, 1865 in observance of Abraham Lincoln’s death. Due to increased communications technology, word spread across the country by telegraph and train allowing the country to morn the loss of its president together.
Several military traditions employed today have been brought forward from the past:
(1) Today's customary three volleys fired over a grave probably originated as far back as the Roman Empire. The Roman funeral rite of casting dirt three times on the coffin constituted the "burial." It was customary among the Romans to call the dead three times by name, which ended the funeral ceremony, after which the friends and relatives of the deceased pronounced the word "vale" (farewell) three times as they departed from the tomb. In more recent history, three musket volleys were fired to announce that the burying of the dead was completed and the burial party was ready for battle again.
(2) The customs of using a caisson to carry a coffin most likely had its origins in the 1800s when horse-drawn caissons that pulled artillery pieces also doubled as a conveyance to clear fallen soldiers from the battlefield.
(3) In the mid to late 1800s a funeral procession of a mounted officer or enlisted man was accompanied by a riderless horse in mourning caparison followed by a hearse. It was also a custom to have the boots of the deceased thrown over the saddle with heels to the front signifying that his march was ended.
(Information gathered from the Manual for Drill and Ceremonies, FM 22-5)
Information provided by Military District of Washington