Image: Nebraska Nurse Honor Guard
Nurses care for others and spend much of their lives healing the sick and comforting patients and families. It’s a service profession and a way of life that is different than any other. It seems fitting that upon a nurse’s death, they are given a final tribute to honor their life and service.
The National Nurse Honor Guard offers volunteer nurses the opportunity to provide a meaningful way to honor nurses who have passed away and to ease the overwhelming feeling of loss for grieving families.
In 2003, the Kansas State Nurses Association (KSNA) started a Nurse Honor Guard but only for nurses in Kansas. At that time, they would send one nurse to pay tribute at the funeral. Another group in Detroit paid tribute only to nurses who had worked at their hospital.
It wasn’t until 2011 when Julia Godby Murray, the current Founder, and President of the National Nurse Honor Guard Coalition, learned what the Detroit nurses were doing and decided to start a group in Michigan. Not long afterward, she wore the traditional nurse uniform to a safe staffing march in Washington, D.C., to help bring more attention to the Honor Guard. After much curiosity and attention from the uniform that day, she was asked to speak at the rally. She spread the message even further through social media and soon helped form one group in Arizona and another in Indiana.
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“Once people saw what we were doing, it started taking off. They were inspired just like I was the first time I saw it,” she told Nurse.org.
There are now at least 250 groups across the country, and according to Julia, there are at least a dozen more ready to start.
Although each group operates autonomously and funeral ceremonies can differ slightly from state to state, all the tributes contain similar details.
The goal is to provide recognition and dignity, free of charge, to fellow nurses.
The Honor Guard tribute lasts approximately five minutes, with each Guard nurse dressed in the traditional white uniform with a white cap, blue cape, and white gloves.
During the ceremony, volunteers recite the Nightingale Tribute. A white rose is placed on the casket or next to the urn, symbolizing the nurse’s dedication to the profession. Afterward, the nurse’s name is called three times, followed by the ringing of a triangle. Then the nurse is honorably relieved from nursing duties, and the light from a Nightingale lamp that had been carried into the ceremony is extinguished before handing it over to the family.
“As nurses, we are born healers; this is how we help heal families. But it also heals the nurses. It brings dignity and respect back to our profession; when you wear that uniform, an overwhelming feeling of pride comes over you. It helps families, but it helps us nurses too,” Julia said.
Only nurses with a license in good standing can join the Nurse Honor Guard, though they do have non-nurse supporters who can participate in fundraising events. However, to participate in the funeral services, Honor Guards must have been a nurse at some point in their life.
Nurses interested in joining the Nurse Honor Guard in their area can contact the closest chapter and inquire about membership. Since each group is an individual entity, there is no standard path to membership.
Julia told Nurse.org, “It’s important that each group function autonomously and not accept funding or be told how to structure their by-laws in return for any funds.”
The National Nurse Honor Guard Coalition, formed by Julia, is a 510c3 non-profit organization and can accept tax-deductible donations. Still, not all groups are required to designate themselves as a 510c3 organization.
“It doesn’t take a lot of money to start a group. The only cost to the group is the lamps and brochures. Nurses buy their uniforms,” Julia said. Membership fees are generally $30-$40 per year.
Julia wanted to highlight the first group she helped form, the Arizona Nurse Honor Guard and said they continue to do great things for nurses and their families across the state.
The Northern Kentucky Nurse Guard will host the first National Nurse Honor Guard Coalition in May 2024. Members from the Kentucky chapter are working tirelessly in preparation.
Julia has worked continuously since 2011 to spread the word about the National Nurse Honor Guard and helps new groups nationwide get started. She posts all news and information on the National group’s Facebook page.
Nurses interested in joining an Honor Guard in their area or starting their own chapter can contact Julia at email@example.com or go to the National Nurse Honor Guard Coalition Facebook Page.