Air Force Chaplain Retires After More Than 2,000 Funerals at ANC

By TIMOTHY JAMES LAWSON on 7/26/2022

By: Kevin Hymel, ANC Contract Historian

On Monday, July 18, 2022, after conducting more than 2,000 funerals over an eight-year span at Arlington National Cemetery, Chaplain (Col.) John L. Elliott, Jr. performed his last funeral as a uniformed Air Force officer. As a Reserve officer, he supported more funerals than most active-duty Air Force chaplains who serve a two- or three-year tour.

Elliott has also used his yearly ten months of active duty to conduct funerals, when he was technically attached to the Air Force District of Washington and the Pentagon. With so much experience, the Air Force often gave him a heavy work load. He once performed fifteen funerals in one week.

Elliott always strived to make sure he had the deceased’s name correct. “If there is one mistake you can never recover from, it’s saying the name wrong—I’ve never gotten a name wrong,” he says with a tinge of pride. But it is not happenstance. Elliott checks with the family, then writes the name phonetically in his notebook. He knows no one will notice if he makes mistakes with the verses he delivers at a funeral but if he mispronounces the name, the family will always remember it. “If you mess up on a name you’re done.”

After so many funerals, Elliott found only one common factor: That no funerals are the same. “Each family reacts differently,” he explains, “but they’re also different because of the resume of the person you’re doing it for.” Elliott has buried airmen who have served in wars and peace, accomplishing impressive deeds along the way. “I can’t even begin to touch the outstanding work they’ve done in their life.”

In eight years of service at ANC, Elliott has also experienced all kinds of weather. One winter during a funeral at the columbarium, the wind blew a cloud of snow onto his neck as he stood at attention. It proceeded to melt and drip down his back. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’” he recalled. At another funeral he stood just outside the sheltering tent as snow melted and steadily dripped like a drum directly onto the center of his service cap.

Summers could be just as bad in a full-dress uniform. “Sometimes you have to wrap your toes so they don’t burn,” Elliott explained. While he has never fainted from the heat, he has seen others succumb. Once, a pall bearer passed out while holding the flag over the casket but was able to recover in time to fold the flag. Elliott always kept his sermons short during the summer to keep the Airmen from getting dehydrated. “It’s far better to be short and on target if nobody passes out,” he said, “because if somebody passes out because you’re too long everyone is going to remember that passed out Airman more than what you said.”

Keeping his emotions in check during a funeral has always the hardest part for Elliott. “You’re looking them in the face and they’re crying and their heart is breaking,” he said, “you have to stay away from emotion yet deal with the emotion at the same time.” Seeing families’ grief is the toughest part of the funeral. “You can see they’re really torn up, and it gets you.”

One aspect of the job Elliott enjoys is the thank-you letters from families after a funeral. Since a funeral is a team effort, he does not keep them for himself. “We show them to the Honor Guard so they know they were appreciated.”

But the highest honor at a funeral for Elliott is presenting the flag to the family. He doesn’t always do it. Usually, officers present the flag for deceased officers and NCOs present for an enlisted Airman. “So that way it’s a shared experience,” he said. Why is it important to him? “Because you’re looking at their eyes and you see they’re in a very emotional state.” The flag presentation comes at the end of the service, after the three-round volley and Taps have been played. “That’s when it hits them,” he explained. “To give the flag to somebody is quite a privilege.”

So after twenty-three years in the Air Force, Elliott performed his last funeral and began out processing. He’s had an impressive career, having served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Germany. Yet, his eight years at ANC had the most important impact on him. “I have been so privileged to be the chaplain that gives these heroes their final tribute and thanks from a country grateful for their service.”