Saying goodbye to a loved one is one of the most difficult experiences we’ll ever have. As we gather to mourn a loss and support each other following the death of someone we love, we do so with the intention that it will help us move forward in our grief. But it’s difficult to do alone. From a death doula guiding a family through a loved one’s final days, to a funeral professional helping a family plan a beautiful service, end-of-life professionals help us make what seems impossible – saying goodbye to a loved one – a meaningful experience. This is the first in an ongoing series of interviews with end-of-life professionals who are dedicated to helping us during our darkest days.
Remembering A Life sat down with Douglas "Dutch" Nie, Nie Family Funeral Home & Cremation Service, Ann Arbor, Michigan, to learn more about his experience in the military and how the skills he learned during his years of service later helped him pursue a successful career in his family's funeral service business.
Nie served as a security policeman on active duty in the U.S. Air Force from 1983-90, during the Cold War, and in the U.S. Air Force Reserve from 1990-92, during Operation Desert Storm. He served both overseas and stateside at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan; McClellan Air Force Base, Sacramento, California; Osan Air Base, Pyeongtaek, South Korea; Chanute Air Force Base, Rantoul, Illinois; and Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas.
While on active duty, Nie earned his associate degree in criminal justice and, after returning to Michigan, a bachelor's degree in mortuary science from Wayne State University. He utilized GI Bill benefits to offset his mortuary school expenses, greatly reducing his financial burden.
Let's start at the beginning. What or who inspired you to serve in the military?
After high school, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I was working part time at our family funeral home and the local pharmacy to occupy my time and make some money, but I still lacked direction.
It was after my best friend from high school came home on leave after completing Marine Corps basic training that I decided to enlist. My friend had been transformed by the experience, and it was clear he now had direction and focus – instilled in him through his service with the Marines.
While you were serving, did you have goals for what you would do when your service ended?
When I enlisted, my goal was to become a sheriff's deputy following my service, so I chose the security police career field to provide me with policing experience.
You were no stranger to funeral service. What was it like to grow up in a funeral service family?
Having grown up above the family funeral home, and working with my parents while in high school, I experienced or witnessed every aspect of funeral service, from washing cars and mowing lawns; working visitations and services; and making transfers at all hours of the day or night.
As a teenager, I sometimes felt resentful that their dedication to serve the families of our community meant they sometimes missed our family events, like holidays and sporting events, and, at the time, I didn't wish to continue in their footsteps.
What changed your mind?
Well, that resentment changed into respect as I matured and realized my dedication to serving my country was very similar to their dedication to serving our community. So, when I was approaching my second re-enlistment, I decided to leave the military and continue to serve locally instead of globally.
How did military service prepare you for your career as a funeral professional? What skills had you developed that were particularly transferable?
There are many skills I developed in my military service that have served me well in funeral service. I knew how to work as a team or unit, and I understood logistics and how to mobilize personnel and resources to accomplish the mission.
In the military, you are continually trained to adapt and overcome to achieve success on the mission you have been assigned. Each mission, whether in training or the real world, has very different variables: terrain; available personnel and supplies; weather; time frames; possible hostiles; etc., and you must plan, adapt and overcome any issues on the fly as you are executing that mission.
Similarly, in funeral service, each family you have the honor of serving is "a mission," and you need to plan and coordinate similar elements to successfully provide a meaningful end-of-life celebration, from the first phone call and arranging for the transfer of the deceased from the place of death to your funeral home, to meeting with family and employing diplomatic skills to satisfy family dynamics.
Once you learn the "terrain," or where the service will be held – whether in your funeral home, local church or country club – you will need to assign and deploy the appropriate equipment and personnel, as well as prepare for weather conditions if any of the ceremonies will be held outside. You may need to establish a primary route and an alternate route from the service location to the cemetery in the event there is unexpected road construction the morning of your service, or if there is an accident in your path.
After all of your planning, you need to effectively communicate to your teammates the overall plan, as well as their individual assignments and expectations, and you must ensure everyone knows and trusts one another to complete their tasks. And it goes without saying that we are given a very limited timeframe to accomplish this. We also know that most of us don't serve one family at a time, so we need to juggle multiple "missions" at the same time while making each family feel they are the only family we are serving at that time.
It seems serving as a funeral director, like serving in the military, offers a great deal of personal satisfaction, but, ultimately, both are something much bigger, much more significant to the community at large.
Yes, I consider each type of service an ambassadorship; the idea that you represent something or someone besides yourself. In the service, you need to remain mindful that your actions and "bearing" – the way you carry yourself – are always being judged by the community and those who observe you, and you have a responsibility to represent, both in uniform and out. For me, this was especially true while serving overseas in our host countries. The same is true in funeral service, whether we're in our suits with nametags, driving the logoed vehicles, or enjoying a beer at the local pub. You have to maintain bearing, as your actions reflect on you and the funeral home.
I imagine, when it comes to things like tradition and ceremony, many parallels can also be drawn between military service and funeral service?
Yes, in many ways. Starting in basic training or boot camp, recruits are taught military history, as well as the traditions that each line of service has and holds dear, and this continues throughout their time in service. You are issued work fatigues, as well as your dress uniform, which is routinely inspected and must be kept in immaculate condition. As you participate in different military ceremonies, you reflect and hold in reverence the history and traditions of those who came before you. Similarly, it's important to learn the traditions and history of funeral service as a profession, and the history of the firm you work for, in addition to understanding and offering proper respect for the particular religious and cultural ceremonies of the families you are serving.
Do you think your military service prepared you well for being a leader in funeral service?
Without a doubt. In the military, you start at the bottom and, as you learn and achieve more proficiency in your career field, you receive more responsibilities and rank. You are provided leadership training as you advance in rank, and with that you receive more responsibilities. Similarly, as an apprentice or newly licensed funeral director starts their career at the funeral home, they become proficient in their duties and advance in their career. They can also earn leadership responsibilities, including being assigned new apprentices to teach, managing a branch location or group of locations, or even becoming an owner. Veterans have been trained in this type of leadership model.
Think about a day in the military and a day in your funeral home. In what ways are they similar?
In both the military and in funeral service, you wake up and prepare yourself for the day ahead, preparing your expectations, both mentally and physically, and reviewing your plan, but also preparing to alter or completely change and adapt to any new situation or calls that might occur. Flexibility is an ideal trait for both a service member and a funeral director. When everything goes according to plan, it is a bonus, but you must always be prepared to adapt and overcome, and this trait is instilled in the military member throughout their entire time in the service.
Have you hired any staff members who were formerly in the military? If so, what about their military service makes them a good fit?
Yes, we have had a number of employees who were veterans and, for the reasons we've discussed, they were a good fit. They are used to working odd and sometimes extended hours, and they have "bearing" and represent our funeral home positively in the community. They are able to adapt and overcome any unexpected events that take place, both while serving a family as well as during daily activities. They are able to understand the overall "mission" objectives and receive or communicate directions to teammates clearly. They have both internal and external discipline, and they understand and appreciate traditions and ceremony.
Military personnel are often more exposed to death and suffering than civilians, and their service calls on them to be reverent in those situations. How might that background and experience prepare military personnel for a post-service career in which they work with families during the most difficult times of their lives?
The military does instill a sense of reverence and the need to maintain bearing during very difficult times. I think that training can help us work with families when their losses are very difficult, although this outward stoic appearance does not mean the military member does not have feelings of sorrow, grief and empathy. Veterans are uniquely suited to act appropriately and compassionately when serving families to accomplish the "mission."
What would you say to encourage someone in the military to consider a career in funeral service?
I would tell them that funeral service is a rewarding career that can allow veterans to fulfill the same servant heart that led them to enlist in the first place; the difference is serving locally versus globally.
Journey to Serve
With an unmatched work ethic, trustworthy skills, and outstanding empathy, veterans are invaluable assets to organizations, including funeral service. Learn more about how you can continue your service to others at JourneyToServe.com.