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Eight bells: Salisbury VA begins sounding ‘honor tones’ to recognize when a veteran dies

SALISBURY — Kelly Cummings had the idea.

The chief nurse for acute care at Hefner VA Medical Center thought there should be a way to honor men and women who die in the veterans hospital, while also alerting other veterans, employees, visitors and volunteers of their passing.

Beginning with Veterans Day on Sunday, the Salisbury VA hospital will now sound eight honor tones across the campus when a veteran dies at the hospital. The tones will be played over the campus public-address system.

“To my knowledge,” Cummings says, “there aren’t any other VAs doing this.”

Cummings’ background has included time as a neonatal intensive care nurse, and she knows maternity wards sometimes make note of births with tones or even the playing of songs such as Brahms’ “Lullaby.”

But Cummings has additional nursing experience in hospice and palliative care, and she thought it would be appropriate to “do something when someone leaves the world.”

“We have people who leave this life and have no formal” acknowledgement of their deaths, Cummings said.

Cummings and other nurses presented their proposal to medical center Director Joe Vaughn, and “he just adopted it right off the bat,” Cummings said.

“Being a Navy guy, he said, ‘Do you know the traditions about the end of the watch?'” Cummings recalled. “It just worked out perfectly.”

Vaughn explained the Navy tradition behind the eight bells.

At sea, sailors knew the time by the ringing of bells during their four-hour watch. The watch’s first half-hour was marked by one bell; the second half-hour, two bells; and an additional bell for every half hour.

Eight bells signaled the end of a four-hour watch and led to the oft-repeated saying, “Eight bells and all’s well.”

In time, because the ringing of eight bells signified the end of a watch, it also came to symbolize the death of a sailor — the ultimate end of his or her watch.

“We hope that everyone who hears the tones takes a moment out of their busy day to remember the sacrifices that many veterans make during their service,” Vaughn said, “and are reminded of the honor we have in serving veterans and their families.”

At 10 a.m. on Veterans Day, just to serve as a symbolic beginning to this new practice, the medical center sounded eight tones.

Cummings says many different approvals had to be reached, including an OK from the VA’s residents council.

The VA’s police dispatcher will play the eight honor tones at a veteran’s death. There will be no mention of a name or any kind of announcement.

But Cummings thinks the tones alone will make people stop, listen and think of the veteran, or they will ask about the tones and come to recognize the death that way.

An Army veteran who has been at the Salisbury VA for three and a half years, Cummings hopes the eight bells catch on with other VA hospitals.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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