Nursing is more than just a career—it’s a life of service to others.

Nurses across Illinois—and across the country—are joining nurse honor guards to commemorate nurses’ service at funerals and memorial services.

Pam Brown, Ph.D., RN, ANA-Illinois member, attended a service with an honor guard and was impressed by the service. “I thought it was a very meaningful way to honor the nurse, and the families were extremely touched by it.”

What Is an Honor Guard & How Did They Start?

Nurse volunteers attend a funeral or memorial service for a nurse who has passed away. They present a short ceremony at the service. The number of volunteers at each service varies but can be as many as the family would like.

In 2002, the Nurses Honor Guard started in Kansas as a way to pay tribute to nurses who lived their lives in service to others through the nursing profession.

“Nursing is a calling, a way of life. Nursing is a service profession that cannot be lived in isolation. Nurses rely on each other for the synergistic effect of teamwork in our efforts of care giving. It is appropriate that we honor our colleagues not only during their career, but also at the end of life’s journey,” writes the Kansas State Nurses Association.

From Kansas, honor guards were formed across the country.

What Is the Tribute?

Ceremonies vary, but many use “The Nightingale Tribute,” which includes candles, a lamp, poem, and a certificate. Many honor guards dress in ceremonial capes, caps, and gowns for the service.

“The entire tribute takes only a few minutes. It can be placed anywhere within the service, appropriate to the traditions and beliefs of the family,” says Brown.

Part of the ceremony includes this lovely poem:

She Was There

When a calming, quiet presence was all that was needed,

She was there.

In the excitement and miracle of birth or in the mystery and loss of life,

She was there.

When a silent glance could uplift a patient, family member or friend,

She was there.

At those times when the unexplainable needed to be explained,

She was there.

When the situation demanded a swift foot and sharp mind,

She was there.

When a gentle touch, a firm push, or an encouraging word was needed,

She was there.

In choosing the best one from a family’s “Thank You” box of chocolates,

She was there.

To witness humanity—its beauty, in good times and bad, without judgment,

She was there. To embrace the woes of the world, willingly, and offer hope,

She was there

And now, that it is time to be at the Greater One’s side,

She is there.

©2004 Duane Jaeger, RN, MSN [Note: pronoun can be changed.]

How to Join

Illinois honor guards are organized by counties. Talk to nurses in your area to learn about an honor guard in your county.

“I think one of the telling things is that I’m from Adams County, a small county, and Brown County is even smaller than we are. And yet, those two counties have over 100 volunteers. Nurses are very willing to volunteer in this way. They’re very willing to honor another nurse,” says Brown, who joined the honor guard in Adams County.

ANA-Illinois is hoping to become a statewide resource for honor guards, with a web page on county contact information to help connect nurses to their county’s honor guard.

Brown recently submitted a proposal to ANA-Illinois for grant funding as well. She hopes that honor guards could apply for grant money to purchase lamps, capes, certificate frames, and other items to make the tribute special for families. The Membership Committee is reviewing the proposal and is exploring how ANA-Illinois can be a resource for Illinois’ honor guards. Stay tuned!

How to Request an Honor Guard

The funeral home can help work with families to make arrangements for an honor guard.

“Visit with a funeral home director, contact a registered nurse, and you can get in touch with an honor guard,” recommends Brown.

Nurses deserve to be celebrated for their service to others. Including an honor guard at a funeral or memorial service is a meaningful way to pay tribute to all they’ve given to their community and to their profession.