When a military member dies, an Honor Guard pays tribute at the funeral by attending — in uniform — to pay respect. The Muskegon Area Nurse Honor Guard serves in a similar role – by honoring nurses who pass with a ceremony at their funeral, releasing them from their earthly duties.
“Nursing is not a nine to five job. It’s a calling and it’s a passion engraved into our soul. Just having the Honor Guard present at a funeral gives peace to the family and helps honor that nurse with the hours, care, and patience she or he has put into their patients,” said Kristina Forman, RN, at Mercy Health Muskegon and co-chair of the Muskegon Area Nurse Honor Guard. “I think that it is just so important to be there with them right until the end before they go to their ‘last shift’ – so to speak.”
The Muskegon Area Nurse Honor Guard was formed in May 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when health care workers were being recognized even more than usual due to the long hours and dedication, they were putting in to try to combat the virus.
Mercy Health Muskegon nurses Kristina Forman, Chris Patterson, Sheila Hamilton, and Kim Mason met at a coffee shop and mapped out an area from as far north as Ludington to as far south as Grand Haven that they would cover for funerals of nurses in that geographic region. The team of nurses was inspired seeing Mercy Health Saint Mary’s in Grand Rapids with an Honor Guard as well as other groups around the country.
“We have over 100 people who have volunteered to participate and they attend funerals when they are able to and as their schedule allows,” said Kim Mason, RN, cardiovascular clinical nurse specialist, and chair of the Muskegon Area Nurse Honor Guard who has worked for Mercy Health for over 20 years. “We have been blessed with people who want to participate, and find it is an important part of our healing ministry. I hope it will continue, and so far, the families have really been touched by having the Honor Guard there.”
The Honor Guard recently attended a funeral for a nurse who had died, and the emotional tribute meant the world to her family.
“We attended a funeral last week, and I heard people turn around and say, ‘the nurses are here.’ We show up in these World War II-era capes and it is very historic and symbolic, but it gives the family some closure,” said Mason. “The husband of the nurse who passed said aside from her faith and her family, there was nothing more important than her work as a nurse. Part of our ceremony is we release that nurse from his or her earthly duties. Families find that gives some closure as it is such a part of who they were.”
The Nurse Honor Guard has an important and impactful role at the deceased nurse’s funeral. Upon arrival, they put a frame next to the sign-in book, and it has a picture of the Nurse’s Honor Guard, explaining to attendees what the group does.
At some point in the service, the Nurse Honor Guard is introduced, they walk single file to the front of the church. One member reads a Florence Nightingale tribute -– in honor of the woman who founded nursing –- and one member will have a lantern, as Nightingale was known as “The Lady of the Lamp,” as she cared for soldiers at all hours of the night, carrying a lantern. One other Honor Guard member carries a white rose, and another a chime.
“During the ceremony, we say the deceased nurse’s name three times and we ring the chime,” said Forman. “After the third ringing of the chime we say that we officially release the nurse of his/her nursing duties. The person holding the lantern blows out the candle and presents the lantern to a family member. Then we quietly express our condolences, form a half circle where we bow our heads, and take a moment of silence. It is very emotional and very special.”
Other nurses who are present at the funeral often comment on the impact the ceremony has as well.
“A nurse internally understands how we feel,” said Forman. “It’s a feeling that is hard to explain but it’s something where we all connect and understand. It’s a wonderful way to say thank you for your dedication, time, and love you’ve given your patients. Any nurse knows just how much that is.”
The Honor Guard has had support from multiple areas including nursing administration and senior management budgeting for the group’s supplies as well as donations received from Flowers by Ray & Sharon -– which donates the white roses for the funerals.
“We all feel it’s really a privilege to celebrate every nurse, and the unity and the timing of what we’ve gone through as a nursing and health care community with the pandemic just brings it to full light,” said Mason. “The opportunity to bring people together and celebrate is really important. We have nurses from the jail, schools, Hospice, and doctor’s offices all come together. Each time we gather, it’s not just about that one nurse -– it’s about bringing us all together to celebrate each other.”