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The Central Virginia Nurses Honor Guard, founded by two VCU alumni, honors dedication to the nursing profession

A few years back, VCU School of Nursing alumna Janice Neil (MS ’94/N, PhD ‘98/N) witnessed a ceremony performed by a Nurses Honor Guard honoring a colleague and her dedication to the nursing profession at a memorial service. What Neil saw was so moving, she was inspired with two friends to create a local chapter in Central Virginia. 

Similar to the tradition of military tributes, nursing honor guards perform symbolic ceremonies that recognize the contributions and release the honored individual from their nursing duties. Active and retired nurses who volunteer in the honor guard travel the greater Richmond area, appearing at funerals, memorial services, and community gatherings to perform the services and offer condolences to friends and families mourning the loss of their loved one. “We are a group of nurses that volunteer our time to provide a last tribute to a nurse on their final journey,” said Neil. 

Wearing the traditional nursing uniform complete with cap and cape, the Honor Guard recites an invocation honoring the individual that dedicated their life to patient care. “The service includes the Nightingale tribute, presenting the family a Nightingale lamp, and laying a white rose on the casket or next to the urn,” said Neil. The tribute is a moment when the nursing community acknowledges their gratitude for the nurse’s service and professional commitment and symbolically releases them from further duty. The recitation of the lines, “At those times when the unexplainable needed to be explained/When a gentle touch, a firm push or an encouraging word was needed” precedes the extinguishing of the lamp.

Organizing a network of nurse volunteers for the chapter is led by Neil, alumna Karen Shockley (BS ‘95/N) and Debbie Hamilton. Together, they provide the necessary resources and coordinate chapter volunteers to appear at funerals and memorial services.

Starting this chapter has been a labor of love. As we have gotten to know so many nurses that have joined, they have shared contacts for building the Richmond chapter. I look forward to working with the other chapters so that no request for a service goes unanswered.

Karen Shockley (BS ’95/N)

Shockley and Neil see their work with the honor guard as their contribution to sustaining the strong nursing community in central Virginia. “VCU has a proud tradition of nursing dating back to 1893 when the school was founded under the traditions of Florence Nightingale. We stand on the shoulders of many proud and outstanding nurses. The Nurses Honor Guard wants to thank and honor them, and any nurse who has served mankind,” said Neil. 

The guard is a touching and visible way that the nursing community comes together to show respect and appreciation long after they have left the bedside or patient care. “It’s important that new graduates understand that while we serve others, we need to serve our fellow nurses. And what better way than to provide support to the families and friends of a colleague at the end of their career and life,” said Neil.

To honor a nurse at a funeral or memorial service, please contact the Central Virginia Nurse Honor Guard through Janice Neil, Karen Shockley or Debbie Hamilton.

by Moira Neve

Categories Alumni and Friends, News