The history of the ‘Dead March’ played before military executions
The U.S. military hasn't executed a prisoner since the 1961 hanging of Pvt. John Bennett at Fort Leavenworth. Prior to 1959, prisoners sent to the gallows by the U.S. military were afforded certain last rights demanded by regulations that included an escort, a chaplain, a last meal, unlimited letters to loved ones, and a military band.
Listeners might be familiar with aa few bars of legendary Polish composer Frederic Chopin's Funeral March, either through military film or television – or through the WWE's Undertaker entrance music. The Army's regulations called for every execution (or series of executions) have a military band accompany the prisoner(s) to the gallows playing the classical tune.
The updated guidance for military executions as of 1959 did not call for the band, but still included the meal, letters, and religious paraphernalia. Only ten military members have been executed for crimes outside of wartime, and only two of those were executed after Apr. 7, 1959, and they did not walk to the gallows to the "Dead March." Private Bennett and John E. Day, both convicted killers, were hanged in the boiler room of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth to no fanfare.
How Chopin's "Funeral March" became the official U.S. military death march is another story. The song comes from the composer's Sonata No. 2 in B Flat Minor. Chopin was celebrated for his piano miniatures, and the Funeral March (the sonata's third movement) was written much earlier than any of his sonatas. Chopin is said to have penned the work commemorating the 1830-1831 November Uprising, where ethnic Poles attempted to shake off the yoke of the Russian Empire.
The hopeful uprising was soon put down by the Russian Army, and the Tsar tightened Russia's grip on Poland. Chopin's original manuscript featured the date of the uprising's start, Nov. 28, 1830. The piece's dark tone and minor keys immediately associated it with death and it was played at the composer's funeral – as well as those of John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and even Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev.
The song would come to ingratiate itself in pop culture around the world as a song (rightly) associated with death and dying, from Saturday morning cartoons to Deadmau5.
The U.S. military's (and many other armed forces around the world) bands, drums, and buglers all played an important battlefield communications function for centuries. Troops, unable to hear the orders of their officers over the din of fighting, would hear and could respond to general orders as played through songs.
In the years following Chopin's Sonata No. 2, it became increasingly popular. The Funeral March was the most popular part of an already-popular musical hit. Soon after, the song's popularity took on a life of its own and the song came full-circle from one of seriousness and piety toward the dead to one of parody. The music that called to mind death and the fragility of life was now being used to make fun of the same concepts.
The piece hasn't always been just for executions. It accompanied the American Unknown Soldier from World War I as he made his way aboard ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean one night in Le Havre, France. It has been used for many a prominent U.S. official as they lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
No matter how parodied it was or why it was used, the Funeral March would endure as a powerful piece of music, not just for the U.S. military, but for the world at large. Even to this day, it evokes the foreboding we associate with death and dying.
And that could be why it didn't endure in military execution regulations. At this point, it just seems overly macabre and slightly cruel.