‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ | Inquirer Opinion
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‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’

The moment the sad news came of FVR’s passing, I sent word to a former colleague in the Department of National Defense to request the protocol office of the Palace and Camp Aguinaldo to please, please, buy a big enough flag. Too many state funerals have featured skimpy flags, which makes the proceedings look skimpy and undignified like someone placed a printed napkin on the coffin. The former colleague said not to worry; his own father, a retired officer, had recently passed, and he said he’d been furious over the tiny size of the government-issued flag. As I watched the video feed of President Ramos’ funeral, I was relieved to see that when his urn was placed, for ceremonial purposes, inside a temporary coffin, it was draped, in turn, by an appropriately-sized flag.

There is, perhaps, a very small fraternity, indeed, about people who either notice or care about such things. The armed forces, for all their institutional orientation about things (they manualize everything, which is as it should be in any bureaucracy) don’t specify the size of the flag to be used on a coffin, just as it does not specify the width of black mourning armbands. Regulations can only go so far, and official ceremonies rely as much on a “feel” for things as it does on doing things “by the book,” assuming there is a book, and assuming further, that people know the book exists—and are willing to follow the book.

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Back to the flag, since death can’t be scheduled, funerals, even official ones, are often put together in a hurry, not least because to have thought too much about them beforehand is somehow still taboo (things like official funerals in other countries aren’t left to chance: they are meticulously planned long ahead of time and the plans reviewed and revised as time passes). The question of the size of the flag isn’t one that naturally occurs to anyone, not least bureaucracies that procure things by the book: if regulations say a flag goes on the coffin, then it must be the standard flag: except what do you do if the standard flag is obviously too small? Put another way, I once had to quickly put together a photo presentation with pictures of previous state funerals to emphatically show the flag has to be large enough to drape over the ends and the sides of the coffin, and not cover only its very top like a colorful napkin.

In other countries, such as the United States (whose regulations provide the basis for most of ours), things like the width of armbands are specified (2-inch wide), and I further suspect there are standard sizes of flags, and thus the size applicable for shrouding a coffin would be common sense (my deduction, based on what we did for Jesse Robredo’s state funeral: a 10-foot flag for a tall person, or an 8-foot flag for an average height person, is ideal). The then-commander of the PSG for his part specified a quarter-inch-wide black elastic band to keep the flag in place as the coffin was transported from place to place, attached horizontally parallel to the lid of the coffin. In the case of President Ramos, I noticed the solution this time was three narrow black bands, attached vertically, one assumes, to try to duplicate the leather straps used on traditional caissons.

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Speaking of caissons, the armed forces have one of their own, which isn’t an actual caisson (an artillery carriage) but rather an approximation of one. This is a pity because a proper, historic one exists. The problem is it’s owned by Funeraria Nacional which used to have a kind of monopoly on state funerals because of the personal expertise of the late Antonio Quiogue. In recent years, the funeraria of choice has become Heritage, but it lacks the institutional memory necessary for national ceremonies (civilian staff have no business fussing about in plain sight, and worse, correcting the soldiers as happened in Ramos’ funeral; train the soldiers properly and get the civilian underlings out of the way!). The caisson of Nacional was acquired abroad and was used in the state funeral of Quezon (1946 and 1978), Roxas (1948), Quirino (1956), Magsaysay (1957), Osmeña (1961), Aguinaldo (1964), Garcia (1971), and, possibly, Macapagal (1997), as well as intervening state funerals for other officials. The Republic should simply acquire it, and it can be displayed in the presidential car museum when not in use.

The father, so to speak, of protocol in the Philippines was the late Ambassador Manuel Zamora, who was chief of presidential protocol from the Quezon to the Marcos administrations. He put together manuals that, over time, have become so hard to find not even the presidential palace has a definitive set, much less the means or the basis for modernizing it. In the Jesse Robredo Memorial Book which you can find on Archive.org, we included documents (pp. 98-116) from his state funeral as a kind of how-to-do-it guide for such things, from the planning to the coordination, to the charts and diagrams, and the communications by bulletin and statement, because much as the armed forces take center stage, muddled—and muddling—civilians should have a guide and basis for understanding the procedures and terms used.

I would even go so far as to devote some attention, in some future definitive guide, as to music. Anyone who has attended one or more official, including state, funerals in our country will know that old hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” played to such great effect by even the worst-tuned of bands. Aficionados of the “Titanic” story will know that it’s been used for the poignant scene of the ship’s orchestra playing as the liner sank (though there is a debate on whether it was really that song). In our case, it’s far more interesting, because far more likely, that it’s being part of the official repertoire dates to the American period and one state funeral in particular: William McKinley’s, in 1901.

Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @mlq3

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