When Janet Edwards took on the job of mortuary officer at the U.S. Air Force Academy Cemetery in 1992, she had never seen a dead body. She had never been to a funeral, let alone facilitated one — and the first burial she had to oversee was that of a 9-year-old boy.
The woman training Edwards advised her to find a way to distance herself from the emotions of her new role.
“I found very quickly that I couldn’t do that,” Edwards said. “I didn’t want to do it, because then I couldn’t care for families the way they needed to be cared for.”
Three decades later, as the only employee in her office, Edwards has managed about 1,500 funerals at the 100-acre site on the south end of the Colorado Springs-based Academy grounds.
The Academy cemetery looks modest compared with the rolling hills of marble headstones present at a place like Arlington National Cemetery. At the academy, there are no headstones at all. Graves are marked by horizontal bronze plaques nestled in freshly cut grass.
For a short time each year — from the Friday before graduation to the day after Memorial Day — the grave of each veteran is marked by a small American flag. With rare exceptions, it is only academy graduates, personnel and certain eligible family members who can be buried here.
Edwards walked among those flags on Friday, speaking in the sort of gentle and comforting voice that could only come from years spent consoling so many grieving families. She had been working with a family on funeral preparations earlier that morning. It’s what she does on a daily basis and her workload is growing dramatically.
She said her first year on the job, the academy conducted 28 funerals. Last year, that number had risen to 127 as members of the Academy’s early classes pass away in higher numbers. As the newest military academy in the country by more than a century, many of the institution’s first graduates are still alive. They are in their mid-80s, however, and Edwards said she expects the rate of funerals at the cemetery to keep going up.
She regularly consults with academy grads who one day wish to be buried at the cemetery. Edwards is the same age now that the Academy’s first graduates were when she first started in her role.
“I get close to them. I tailgate with them. A couple of them are my ‘hockey husband’ and my ‘football husband’ when their wives don’t want to go,” she said. “It’s a personal connection for me.”
Edwards described her role in life as honoring and celebrating the lives of the people buried in her cemetery. And, for her, every day is Memorial Day.
“I always get teared up when I tell a family member, ‘It's our honor to welcome your loved one home to the Air Force Academy,’” Edwards said. “They don't expect it, but it is true.”