A few years back, Jan Bronnenberg, RN, returned to her hometown in Southern Indiana to attend the funeral of her old friend Nancy, with whom she had attended both high school and nursing school. She was shocked to see two nurses flanking her friend’s casket, dressed in the traditional white nurses’ uniforms, complete with white stockings and shoes and white nurses’ caps upon their heads.
A Powerful Presence
The two nurses stood silently throughout the funeral service, until they came forward.
One was holding the signature Florence Nightingale lamp; the other lit it. Then one finally spoke:
“This lamp is a symbol of all Florence Nightingale stood for: comfort and kindness, gentleness and courage, and an unwavering devotion to duty. Perhaps deep down, she knew even then that the light from it would go shining on into the future.”
The two nurses then recited the Florence Nightingale pledge; after which, one said,
“Nurse Nancy, please report for duty.
Nurse Nancy, please report for duty.
Nurse Nancy, please report for duty.
Nurse Nancy, thank you for your service; you are now relieved of your earthly duties.“
With that, the nurse blew out the candle of the lamp, and handed it to a family member seated in the front row. The other nurse read “The Nurse Prayer.” When she finished, both nurses walked over, faced the casket and nodded, and then walked out of the room.
After the ceremony, Bronnenberg approached the two formally-dressed nurses and asked them if they had worked with Nancy at the hospital. They explained that they hadn’t personally known her friend; rather, they were part of an “Honor Guard for Nurses” that had been formed at Good Samaritan Hospital in Vincennes, IN, by a nurse named Heidi Dodd.
Inspired to Imitate
Bronnenberg drove home from that funeral service with a mission in mind: to facilitate forming an Honor Guard for Nurses in Anderson. “I contacted Dodd immediately, and she gave me a tremendous amount of help and information so we could form an Honor Guard here in Anderson.”
Dodd got Bronnenberg started by sending a brochure she had created, explaining the service, along with a book mark to give to the deceased nurses’ family members as a keepsake. Bronnenberg, who had been retired for approximately 7 years from St. Vincent Anderson Regional Hospital in Anderson, IN (St. Vincent), approached her former chief nursing officer (CNO), Nancy Pittcock, RN, about forming a group at St. Vincent.
“I am so fortunate, because Pittcock loved the idea and gave me her full support,” Bronnenberg recalled. Pittcock invited her to speak about the Honor Guard at an upcoming retirees’ luncheon being held at St. Vincent. “People were as taken with the idea as I was, and they volunteered. Just like that, a group was formed.”
The Devil Was in the Details
Getting the group formed may have been easy-but as everyone knows, the devil is in the details. “There were a lot of decisions that had to be made before we could set our ministry in motion,” Bronnenberg related. “A core group of us met once a week for 6 months, planning everything out down to the tiniest detail. We had to get our ducks in a row before we began contacting local funeral homes.”
First, Bronnenberg and her volunteers had to figure out how they wanted to conduct their service (What would be said? Would there be a display table, and if so, what was allowed on it?); develop a dress code (“We do not allow scrubs or tennis shoes, and white stockings-which are impossible to find, by the way-are a must”); prepare an orientation packet for new nurses who wanted to join the group; and prepare an informational packet to present to funeral home directors.
My husband helped us out by creating a DVD of our Honor Guard in action, so the funeral directors could see for themselves the service we were offering,” Bronnenberg noted. Four Honor Guard members acted in the video, fully dressed in the traditional white uniforms. The funeral home packet also included a questionnaire that the funeral director could present to families, so they can decide what they want the Honor Guard to do at a service or visitation. “Then, the funeral home contacts us.”
Finding the Funding
The Honor Guard for Nurses is, of course, provided free of charge to the family of a deceased RN or LPN. So who, then, is footing the bill for the printing of brochures, bookmarks, training materials and information packets, not to mention old-fashioned nursing uniforms and Florence Nightingale lamps? “St. Vincent was very generous in helping us get this group off the ground,” Bronnenberg commented. “They gave us $500 in “seed capital” to start, plus lent us their marketing and public relations expertise (to design the bookmarks and brochures) and free use of their print shop services.”
The volunteer nurses themselves pay for their own nursing uniforms and shoes, and on occasion they donate additional funds to help the cause. St. Vincent donated money for the purchase of the white nurses’ caps. “Of course, if a volunteer has her own cap, she can just wear that,” Bronnenberg related. “I wear my own cap and nursing pin. I think so far, we’ve had to order about 2 dozen caps for volunteers that didn’t have them.”
At services and visitations, “We never ask for donations,” Bronnenberg said. “Nor do we expect them. But, we have received donations. We started out with $500 and now have over $1,000 to help cover the cost of replacing our lamps.”
SEE ALSO: Why I Became A Nurse
How Did the Word Spread?
The Nursing Honor Guard currently consists of 26 trained, uniformed RNs and LPNs who have served at funerals, with an additional 4 members who are “in training” and in the process of trying to obtain uniforms. The ages of the Honor Guard nurses range from approximately 30 to 80. “We have a good mix of working and retired nurses on our roster,” Bronnenberg explained. “If a funeral is going to take place at midday on a Wednesday, our retired nurses can stand at the service.”
The group has been present at 39 services to date. The Honor Guard’s presence is most often provided during the viewing or at the actual funeral service, but the Honor Guard will also go to churches and has even done one service outside, in a park. “We are also willing to go graveside, although so far, this has never been requested,” Bronnenberg added.
Two members of the Honor Guard, Kay Hite, RN, and Kathy Halleck, RN, read the local newspapers every day, scanning the obituaries and looking for obituaries of nurses. “They will then contact the funeral home directors if they haven’t been contacted, and ask if the family would like the presence of the Honor Guard.”
Bronnenberg maintains a spreadsheet of all the local funeral homes and their directors-they currently offer their services at 22 funeral homes, in 3 different counties-and she e-mails them every three to four months, reminding them to contact Hite or Halleck when a nurse has passed away and asking if they need any more forms or if they have any questions.
In addition, last year, Hite spoke to members of the graduating class at Anderson University. “We were trying to bring in some ‘young blood,'” Bronnenberg joked.
Always Packed & Ready to Serve
Perhaps the trickiest part of organizing and executing this special volunteer service is this: there’s no advance notice of a nurse’s passing; and once we get that notification, the process moves very quickly.
“The suitcase is key,” Bronnenberg explained. “Volunteers need to pick it up and bring it to the service. It is stored in a special room at St. Vincent. We weren’t going to do this at first, but then we thought, ‘Well, what happens if someone dies, and the suitcase is at my house, but I’m out of town?” A central location that happens to be open 24/7 made sense.
Inside the suitcase, volunteers will find the Florence Nightingale lamp to give to family members, a lighter to light it, the bookmark to give to family members, the special caps to place upon their heads, and nametags (which say, “Nursing Honor Guard” at the top and “Honoring the Lives of Nurses” across the bottom and which depict the Florence Nightingale lamp in the center).
Hite and Halleck both keep a list of the volunteer nurses’ names in their homes, and when they learn from a funeral director that their services were requested, they start calling the names on the list until they find volunteers. If it’s going to be a long visitation, they will try to get 4 volunteers, so they can change guard every 15 minutes and take a rest.
Recently, the Honor Guard was called upon to service 2 funerals on the same day. “We worked it out short-term, and immediately ordered another suitcase and extra supplies,” Bronnenberg recalled.
Paying It Forward
With the St. Vincent group flourishing, Bronneberg hopes to inspire others who would like to create a similar group in their hometown. “We’ve done all the legwork, and we are so willing to share our expertise,” she stated. So far, the St. Vincent volunteers lent their assistance to a group of nurses in Kokomo, IN, who wanted to form an Honor Guard. “Their turnaround time was so quick, compared to ours. They’ve been up and running for about a year now. Their group consists of approximately 14 volunteers, and they’ve stood at about 16 services.”
Is it ever depressing, being present at so many funerals? Quite the opposite, it turns out. “It’s such a positive experience,” Bronnenberg said. “The families are so appreciative; it’s just amazing.”
This is not to say she doesn’t feel sad about the loss of a nurse. “I have stood at the funerals of a couple of nurses I knew personally; and yes, sometimes a tear or two is shed as you stand guard,” Bronnenberg related. “But, this is the last tribute you can give to a nurse who gave her whole life caring for others. It is such a privilege to be able to do this. My fellow volunteers and I are all so passionate about this program. We only wish we could honor every nurse on the planet, because they deserve it.”
If you are interested in starting an Honor Guard for Nurses in your area, contact Jan Bronnenberg via e-mail at: [email protected].
Anne Collins is on staff at ADVANCE. Email her at: [email protected].