For the better part of nearly two decades, Ken Reck has played the same 24 notes about 200 times a year – sometimes more frequently – without accompaniment and at times without audience.
Each time was as important as the previous, each one to be as solemn as the next.
It took the coronavirus pandemic to silence the 85-year-old bugler from playing Taps for a fellow veteran being interred at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver.
“It just breaks my heart that I can’t give them that,” the Korean War veteran said of the decision by the National Cemetery Association to universally prohibit any military honors – Taps or rifle salvos – for interments during the pandemic.
“I’ve played for veterans who were being buried and the only ones there were myself and the honor guard,” he said. “Now they won’t even have that.”
How America mourns its dead has been profoundly altered as the coronavirus extended its reach.
“It’s difficult for folks in 2020 to wrap their heads around this,” said Gary Schaaf, executive director of mortuary and cemeteries for the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver. “By and large people have been very understanding. Some are saying we shouldn’t be doing anything, and there are calls from those who can’t believe we’ve diminished the church service at all.”
Bodies are lowered and the grave covered without family nearby, he said though they sometimes watch from the car.
The rites of burial might vary from one religion or group to the next, but the outcome is essentially the same: Family and community gathering for a chance to say good-bye.
“It’s been (difficult) for us, the additional pain caused on top of losing someone in this COVID-19 environment,” said Marco Chayet, whose stepfather, Denver oilman Marvin Wolf, died on March 15, just as the restrictions caused by the pandemic began to proliferate.
“There are significant cultural and religious tenets we follow for the deceased and the surviving spouse and … the shiva” period of mourning, Chayet said. “We could not do anything because of this environment of COVID.”
Jamie Sarche, director of preplanning at Feldman Mortuary in Denver, said they are only doing graveside services and those need to be private burials. “It’s so difficult right now. It’s really important that they get those (ritual and healing) needs met, and community peace is so important and vital for healing.”
It wasn’t the delayed memorial or that only the closest family members could be at Wolf’s interment that hurt the most, Chayet said.
“I had and have a profound sadness in my heart that our community was not able to support my mother at her time of grieving,” he said. “My mother is a loving person who deserved to have the hugs, the kisses and the hand-holding by friends and family, and she wasn’t able to have that.”
At Fort Logan, some families have chosen to wait until the pandemic lifts rather than have a service without rifle volleys or Taps.
“We don’t want families to think we’re just dropping them into the ground,” said Raymond Dann, assistant director at the cemetery. “We definitely want to ensure they get the military honors they earned.”
That’s been hard for bugler Reck and the other members of the All Veterans Honor Guard to handle.
“It’s always been my honor to play those 24 notes that they earned the right to have played for them,” Reck said. “I’m not sure how much longer I can do this. I’d sure like to have a live bugler when I go. Until then, I am committed to doing the best we can for those who did the best that they could.”