|A UMNS photo courtesy of the Rev. Ted Hepner
The Rev. Ted Hepner leads a funeral procession at Arlington National Cemetery.
May 23, 2005
A UMNS Feature
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
at Arlington National Cemetery are called the “Virginia Planters”
because of all the funerals they perform for the nation’s military.
the Rev. Ted Hepner gave himself a new title when he served as United
Methodist Army chaplain at Arlington from 1982 to 1985.
changed my title to ‘launch control officer,’” he says. “The Virginia
Planters were planting them in the ground, but as launch control
officer, I was launching them from this world to the next.”
the time he served at Arlington, he averaged about 25 funerals a week.
Though it was not an assignment he wanted, he says it turned out to be
one of the most significant of his career.
me it is a privilege to be selected for that kind of duty because you
are caring for those who have given their most,” he says. “It is a
privilege to be with the families at a time of their deepest need.”
his career as a chaplain, Hepner served tours of duty in Italy,
Germany, Korea and Vietnam. He was senior Army chaplain during his years
He was reluctant to take the assignment because he wanted a “total” ministry.
had avoided hospital ministry because it was too specialized,
short-term and crisis oriented. I liked the opportunity to have total
ministry where you have some opportunities to celebrate baptisms,
weddings, confirmations—things that help brighten as well as help somber
it turned out, it was one of my most significant ministries just
because of the depth of the contact I had with so many people.”
An emotional toll
Over the years, Hepner received numerous letters of appreciation, and those letters helped him “balance the work.”
were times when I would literally come home in tears, especially
(after) services involving little children,” he says. “Their father was
killed in service, the widow and youngster are there—it gets difficult.”
services take an emotional toll on all the soldiers involved, he says,
including those who carry the casket, serve in the firing squad, and
march or play in the band.
they (the soldiers) would tend to distance themselves,” he says. “They
would call a burial a ‘drop’ and things like that, so it wouldn’t become
so personalized. It was a very demanding assignment for everyone.”
|A UMNS photo courtesy of the Rev. Ted Hepner
Mae Hepner (center) poses with her husband during the time he served as Army chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery.
Mae, helped him through those times and also served as one of the
Arlington Ladies, a volunteer group that attends all the funerals and
represents the Army Chief of Staff. The group was started so no service
member would be buried without someone at the funeral. The women also
write a letter to the family thanking them for their loved one’s years
reason they started was many people lived so long or came from so far
away people were not able to attend. They would just have a
representative from the funeral home,” she says.
is very taxing on the emotions at first, but then you kind of get into
the feel of it, and once you do it a couple of times it seems easier.
One day a month we would serve.”
Mae recalls times when Ted came home sobbing.
would really pull his strength, or a young family (with a) young father
or mother dying. It was really, really hard,” she says. “I am sure I
couldn’t have done it.”
says many times he wouldn’t know anything about the deceased except his
or her military record. Often he only met the family just 30 minutes
before the service.
one of the funerals, as I read the Scripture and prayed on behalf of
the deceased, the daughter came up and said, ‘How do you know she is a
Christian?’ I said, ‘I don’t; I haven’t met your mother, but all I can
do is entrust her to God’s care.’ The daughter was a fundamentalist and
was convinced that because her mother was of a different persuasion she
was condemned already.”
He saw the funerals or graveside services as opportunities to help people reflect on their faith.
our faith speaks to us at all, it certainly has to be at a time of
passage. We cling closely to the promises Christ made that where he
goes, we will be also. This is what I focus on.”
says being in the Washington area meant dignitaries were often at the
funerals. He remembers President Ronald Reagan attending a funeral in
which Hepner was the escort officer. Another time, Army Gen. Maxwell
Taylor was asked to speak at a wreath ceremony.
said, ‘You know I have this walker that helps walk, a pacemaker that
tells my heart when to beat, hearing aid that helps me hear and glasses
that help me see, but I still decide when I’m going to eat, and I’m
still in charge!’ It was those kinds of things that perked you up and
picked you up along the way.”
Several funerals remain clear in his mind, like one for a baby girl who died soon after birth.
didn’t know the family. I went to the graveside and there they were,
standing with a balloon.” He remembers thinking the couple, who had two
young children with them, weren’t taking the service very seriously. At
the end of the service, they released the balloon.
talking with them, I realized they had the name of the baby tied to the
string on the balloon. When they released it, we all stood and watched
it until it went out of sight. I thought what a beautiful teaching
example that was for the two children. It helped them understand what
happened to the little baby sister they were looking forward to and
excited about. It was a symbol of how she returned to God.”
another rainy service he remembers seeing a stranger standing close by
the family. As the wind blew, Hepner could see he was carrying a rifle.
Then he noticed that the son of the deceased was in handcuffs.
obviously had been released from prison to come to the funeral service,
under guard. I was totally unaware of this.” Hepner says all he could
do was offer was a word of hope to the widow who had just lost her
husband and knew her son was going back to prison.
When things go wrong
service at Arlington can be the most meaningful service anywhere when
it goes well, he says. “But when it doesn’t go well, it goes bad.”
Once, a veteran’s body dropped out of the bottom of a casket as it was being carried to the graveside, he says.
had happened was he was an older veteran and didn’t have any family,
and they contract those funerals out,” Hepner explains. In those cases,
the funeral goes to the lowest bidder, and the plywood box was not made
very well. “I’m sure they never used that contractor again.”
time during a full honors funeral, a representative of the funeral
home, while trying to get a flower off the casket for the widow, slipped
and fell in the hole.
can imagine what it did to the military unit standing there. I mean, we
all did everything we could to keep from chuckling,” he says. “But the
tragedy was the widow, in the process of all of this sudden flurry of
activity, just fell apart and threw herself on the casket. We had to
physically pull her off and lead her out. There are a lot of things that
can and sometimes do go wrong.”
active-duty or retired service member can be buried at Arlington, but
Hepner says the cemetery is getting full. It will probably be full about
the year 2020, and other national cemeteries will have to be used, he
survivors of every service member buried at Arlington National Cemetery
get a brochure from the United States Army chaplains, “A Tribute to a
Soldier.” It contains Scripture, pictures and a history of Arlington. On
the last page is printed, “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American
Soldier Known But to God.”
Hepner says, “Nothing says Memorial Day to me more than that.”
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.