What is a Funeral Caisson and When is it Used?

Funeral caisson and honor guard
U.S. Air Force Honor Guardsmen follow a caisson carrying the remains of two airmen to their gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery. Photo © Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

A funeral caisson [pronounced kay-sen or kay-sahn] is a two-wheel, horse-drawn cart or wagon originally used to transport ammunition during military battles and, when necessary, to transport the wounded or dead from the battlefield. Today, caissons bearing casketed human remains appear primarily during state funerals or during the cemetery procession for a member of the Armed Forces who receives full military funeral honors.

Typically, a caisson is attached to a limber, a separate two-wheel, horse-drawn cart or wagon originally used to elevate the barrel of a two-wheeled canon, for instance, for transport around a battlefield. (The limber is attached to the horse train, and the caisson is attached to the limber.) Thus, because many people have seen a caisson-and-limber rig drawn by horses -- such as that used during the televised funerals of President John F. Kennedy or President Ronald Reagan -- many assume that a caisson has four wheels, but this is technically incorrect even though the rig is simply called a "caisson."

During the funerals for U.S. presidents or those who reached the rank of colonel or higher in the U.S. Army or U.S. Marine Corps, a caparisoned (riderless) horse might follow the funeral caisson, as well.

According to an episode of American Artifacts, a C-SPAN video series, members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry or "Old Guard" conduct roughly eight military funerals using caissons every day at Arlington National Cemetery, located in Arlington, Virginia.

Arlington is the premier national cemetery for any member of the U.S. Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard) who dies on active duty, and any veteran discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.

The Old Guard Funeral Caissons, May 28, 2011. American Artifacts.

Retrieved December 26, 2015. http://www.c-span.org/video/?299614-1/old-guard-funeral-caissons

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VIDEO: The Old Guard Funeral Caissons

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