“To honor…with dignity.”
This is the official motto of the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard. Over the past six months, I’ve had the distinct privilege of serving as a member of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Honor Guard. Our primary mission is to provide military honors at the funerals of veterans, retirees, and active duty members who served honorably in the Air Force. Military honors consist of folding the flag, playing taps, presenting the flag, and sometimes a firing party and color guard, depending on if the person was a veteran, retiree, or active duty service member.
In six months, I provided military honors at 52 funerals across Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Kentucky. In the beginning, I was really nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to handle it. I’m typically one of those sappy girls who cries during those sad animal commercials and cheesy romantic comedies. Seeing people cry always makes me cry. I couldn’t even imagine how I was going to handle offering a folded flag to a crying widow.
I guess its pretty amazing what you can do, and what you can get used to, when you have to…especially when you know how much it means to the loved ones left behind.
Moreover, it’s amazing what you can learn about life from being around so much death…
Expect the Unexpected
Before I went on my first detail, I spent two weeks in training, where I learned the basics and prepared for the unexpected. Inevitably, strange things tend to happen at funerals, and we have to be ready to go with the flow and maintain a standard of professionalism at all times. Although I never experienced anything too crazy, I did have a few curveballs thrown at me.
- For starters, I was the Officer in Charge at an active duty service for an Airman that went Missing in Action during the Vietnam War. His parents never gave up hope that he would one day find his way home. So, it wasn’t until they both passed away that his siblings decided to give him a proper funeral and memorial service. This was a full 21-person detail, complete with color guard, firing party, and fly over.
- I served at another service where the veteran got out of the Air Force and went on to become a deacon, and was very involved in his local church. However, his service was rather frustrating. Rather than commemorate him, the pastor took two hours to preach about the destructive ways of today’s youth and to pressure other congregation members to step up and fill this man’s shoes. He literally brought in several pairs of the man’s shoes and waited until people volunteered to come take a shoe, each associated with a specific duty, before continuing closing the service.
- Of course, the weather can always become an issue as well. A couple of months ago there was a pretty bad storm, including a tornado watch, that swept through Louisville, Kentucky and the surrounding region. The storm brought extremely strong winds and torrential downpours with it. Where do you think I was during this storm? Yep, right in the middle of it! We were at an outdoor funeral for a 71 year-old man who was run over and killed by his own tractor.
- As if that wasn’t crazy enough, the curveball that pretty much takes the cake was the 52nd and final detail I performed. It turned out to be a double-funeral for a husband and wife. Before we arrived at the cemetery, we assumed it must have been a car accident. However, the groundskeeper informed us that the couple was actually murdered in their home, which was then set on fire with them inside it.
You know, I may have never served in combat during my four years in the Air Force, but I’ve sure seen some awful and difficult things.
Three Types of Funerals
Aside from these more unusual circumstances, the majority of funeral services fell into three main camps:
The Quiet Passing
These were the funerals that only a few people showed up to. Barely anything was said, and the service was over in the blink of an eye. Here was someone who had served their country and existed for a time on this earth. But who were they? Had they truly lived their lives? Would they be missed? These were the souls that slipped quietly away, whose passing was largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.
The Ritual Gathering
These made up the bulk of the funerals I attended. They typically had medium or even large sized crowds. As one might expect at a funeral, the mood was very solemn. Before the service, the people conversed quietly with one another, often catching up with family members they rarely see. Once the service began, children shifted uncomfortably in their seats as pastors and priests read through religious passages. Silent tears turned to muffled cries as taps began to play. These people laughed and loved. They worked and played. They saw good times and bad, and hopefully lived out their lives in the best way they knew how.
The Celebration of Life
These funerals were fewer and further between, but were by far the most memorable. These were the funerals that humbled me and forced me to take a closer look out how I’m living my own life. Although they varied between religious and not, families large and small, there was something they all had in common: these were people who lived a life uncommon.
These services were filled with grandsons who stood up to talk about their favorite memories with their grandfathers, daughters who learned their most valuable life lessons from their fathers, and sons who hoped they could become even half the man their father had been. They were filled with memories, laughter, tears, and songs. These services were not about commemorating a death; they were about celebrating a life.
It was easy to see each of these people were truly loved, and that they will be remembered long after they are gone. These were the people who saw more in others and got more out of life. Their lives were sometimes simple, but always meaningful. These were wise men and women who experienced life fully, and whose legacy will live on for years to come.
Which kind do you think yours will be?
Reflecting on Life
After attending so many funerals, I couldn’t help but think about my own funeral. It reminded me of an exercise from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People workshop I attended several years ago.
The point of the exercise was to highlight the fact that effective people take time to define the legacy they want to leave behind in each of the key roles in their lives. These roles are the relationships and responsibilities they consider most important. The instructions were to:
- Identify and write up to seven key roles (both personal and professional).
- Identify and write a key person’s name for each role.
- Visualize your 80th birthday party, including each of the key people you just listed. Imagine that each of these people were to stand up and give a tribute speech. How would they describe you and what would you want them to say?
Now, my version is a bit more morbid I suppose, but the point is the same:
- Imagine these same people at your funeral.
- Who would be there and what would they say about you?
- What would your contribution or legacy be?
- Finally, if you could write your own eulogy, what would you say?
I’d like to think my eulogy might sound something like this:
Above all, Adrienne always brought joy into the lives of others. She certainly led an interesting life, didn’t she? She was always learning, trying new things, and having fun. But more than that, Adrienne truly enjoyed serving others. Her greatest passion was sharing her wisdom with others and encouraging them to grow as individuals, to fully experience the gift of life, and to continuously give back. She showed us how to come together as a community, seeing one another as we are on the inside, in terms of our enormous potential. Her presence, generosity, sense of adventure, and spirit of love will not soon be forgotten. She will live in our hearts as a guide, leading us towards greater wisdom and love.
Now, if that day were to come tomorrow, I certainly don’t think this is what they would be saying! But why not strive for true greatness? I’m imagining this eulogy at the end of a long life well lived. So what do I need to do to make that happen? That’s exactly what this blog is all about!
This isn’t something to put off. Life is short, and there are no guarantees about how much time we get. You don’t need to go to 52 funerals to figure out what’s important in life. Just spend a few minutes thinking about your own legacy. Take a stab at your own eulogy. Write it down, and take a peek at it from time to time.
What are you doing to live up to that eulogy?
If you’re up to sharing, I would love to hear what you come up with!