In the dim light of a subterranean parking garage, the Marines gather before dawn to train beside the flag-draped casket and a black coffin lid on the wall bearing the inscription: "The Last to Let You Down." They are the Body Bearers, an elite unit that carries Marines to their final resting place.
To ready for the arduous work – they perform three to five funerals each day at Arlington National Cemetery and the caskets they lift can weigh up to 800 pounds – the Marines come together every morning for pulse-thrumming drills. But they cannot prepare for all aspects of their graveside ritual, as the most difficult moments come when they least anticipate: the sight of a boy at his father’s funeral dressed in the fallen Marine’s oversized uniform, or the sound of a K-9 service dog whimpering as the Body Bearers interred its handler.
"Each funeral takes a part of you," said Cpl. Salvatore Sciascia, 21, the most experienced Marine among the Body Bearers. He has performed 550 funerals.
Sciascia said the unit trains for "flawless funerals," noting that while a Marine can mistakenly lose grip of a rifle, the Body Bearers can never drop a casket.
"Selfish people don’t make it here," said Cpl. Jamen Miller, 25, who traded toting an M-240 machine gun to carry coffins. "It’s not about my temporary pain. It’s about the families."
Of all 182,000 active-duty Marines, there are just 10 Body Bearers, making the unit based at the 8th and I barracks in Southeast Washington one of the smallest of the Corps. To join, Marines must be at least 5-foot-11 – to ensure the casket remains level when carried – and they must be capable of lifting more than 200 pounds. As part of their training, the Body Bearers learn to breathe only through their noses so as not to give the appearance of exerting themselves as they walk with the coffins elbow high. In addition, the Marine Corps prides itself as the only military branch to use six pallbearers for all funerals rather than eight.
"It’s about making it look effortless," Sciascia said.
The training regimen is tougher than boot camp, and the Body Bearers who succeed stand apart. Sciascia – who weighs 255 pounds – said their imposing frames are unmistakable around the barracks. A metal pullup bar in their practice area is bent from their weight, and they are not permitted to sleep in bunk beds in the barracks as a safety precaution.
To build the requisite strength, unit members take part in drills carrying trash cans filled with cement and practice with caskets loaded with weight plates. (They also eat to gain muscle: one Body Bearer swears by salmon burgers; another said his secret is tuna and orange juice smoothies.) While they train for the inevitable they must also brace for the unforeseen. During one ceremony, the horse-drawn caisson broke down, so the Marines had to carry the casket all the way to the burial site.
As they perform funerals, the Marines step toe-to-heel to ensure they walk steadily on the cemetery’s uneven soil. They wear modified uniforms with the underside of the arms of their wool coats stitched with mesh so that the bulky cloth does not inhibit the Marines from executing a stiff salute. And as a solemn reminder of the frequency of their task, the Marines must periodically change out their white leather gloves, which take on a red tint from folding flags.
The Body Bearers’ final maneuver is a ceremonial raising of the casket to eye-level, holding the fallen Marine high for up to 10 seconds for a full honors funeral before lowering the coffin to the ground.
"It’s a sign of respect," Miller said.
The graceful movement is where the Body Bearers earned their motto: "The last to let you down." But to Sciascia, who joined the Corps "to serve a greater purpose," it’s more than just words.
"It’s anything that we do," he said. " ‘The last to let you down’ to me means we’re going to do the job and do it perfect every time, and we’re not going to fail."
Nowhere else is the Body Bearers’ dedication more apparent than when they fold the flag to be presented to the family of the deceased. During a recent funeral at Arlington, the Marines stood at attention as a leaf-rustling breeze chilled the autumn air. Standing opposite one another, the Marines unfurled the flag in a choreographed finger ballet. With their gloved hands, the Body Bearers kept the flag taut and creased with a flick and a snap. Finally, the Marines gently passed the flag to be presented to the next of kin.
"We provide families with possibly their last look at the Marine Corps," Miller said. "We want to show them how much honor we put into it and care and love for our brothers and sisters in the Marine Corps."
The funeral ended with a 21-gun salute and a lone bugler playing taps. The Body Bearers then marched solemnly away from the grave.