I’ve put off writing this for a couple of weeks to really have time to think about everything that went on. I’m a pretty new pastor and a pretty new chaplain. I’ve only in the past couple of months been assigned to a unit where I’m the sole battalion chaplain. Before I was double slotted with another chaplain who had the primary role as he was deployed and I was with the Rear Detachment. Basically what I want to do with this post is provide some very general advice to new National Guard/Reserve chaplains who might be facing a similar situation.
This was a funeral for a young soldier with a wife and family. My unit is not deployed so the death was not combat related but rather due to a non-military work related accident. The situation was especially challenging because at the time of the funeral the only activity I had done with the unit was annual training so I was still in the very early phases of my ministry in the unit. Thankfully, I had met the soldier and had started building a relationship with him and his family before the accident so I was not a complete stranger.
Here are some observations from my experiences with the funeral (remember these are from the perspective of a Guard chaplain).
- When you get word of the death, immediately plan to go visit the family. Make sure your Blues look sharp and roll out as soon as possible. I had to drive two hundred miles one way to visit this family. That is one of the challenges of the Guard in that our people are often spread out over a wide swath of land. It might be that you only spend 15-20 minutes with the family. It might be that you spend hours. Be sensitive to the time and the needs of the family. You will provide a comforting and caring face for the military aspect of the death. The family is going to be dealing with paperwork and military bureaucracy and sometimes that process can be very cold and insensitive despite the best efforts of the personnel handling it. You need to show that the military cares about more than just getting the paperwork processed and really wants to help and support the family.
- Ask for help. This was my first military funeral and I also have not done many funerals as a civilian pastor yet. I was as green as they come. Don’t sit there and try to remember what you learned at CHBOLC years ago. Get on the phone and call an experienced chaplain. In the Guard I believe that most states have at least one full time support Chaplain. This Chaplain will probably be a good resource. I contacted our full time Chaplain and he was very helpful in walking me through my part in the funeral as well as providing general support and encouragement. This is important ministry so don’t try to tackle it alone if it is your first rodeo.
- Talk to the funeral home director. The odds are that person has done a good number of military funerals. He might not know the military regs word for word but has probably seen enough military funerals to provide some good guidance and advice.
- Follow up with the family. I made it a point to call the wife of the soldier who was killed to check up on her and see how she was doing. Another thing I did was, with her permission, contact a local church and let them know her situation and some of her needs so that they could get involved. I live two hundred miles away so I can’t do the face to face ministry that is really needed so I took the extra time to contact a local pastor. This family was not a part of a local church so they did not have the wonderful support that a church often provides in difficult times so be sure to have this option in the back of your mind if the family is open to it. Plus, I’m sure the local pastor will welcome the ministry opportunity.
- Be mindful of the weather. It was brutally hot and humid the day of the funeral. When I was planning the graveside service I had that in mind and kept my part very short.
- Chaplains, this is an opportunity for your commander and other staff and soldiers to really see what you do and how important your job is. Doing a good job at a funeral can open up many other doors for ministry.
So there you have it. Just a few observations based on my experiences doing my first military funeral. Thankfully, the funeral went very smoothly and was a very fitting salute to the life of the fallen soldier. I am grateful for our full time support chaplain and the funeral home staff who helped make my part of the service successful.