In this day of skyrocketing costs for memorial services and burial, it may be comforting for family members of United States military veterans to know that they can often save a lot on their overall costs by virtue of a benefits’ program administered by the United States Veterans Administration. In general, military veterans, their spouses and their children (or other dependents) are entitled to free burial in any of the nation’s 131 national cemeteries. While funeral services performed by a funeral director are not covered in this this program – and those can costs thousands of dollars – this benefit can save families up to $6,000 or more off what they would be asked to pay if burial was to be done in a private cemetery.
But, as with just about every other government-sponsored program, there is plenty of room for confusion in the rules and implementation of the VA’s burial benefits. So we offer this summary. For details you can contact the United States Veteran’s Administration directly.
The basic cemetery benefits provided for free to any United States Military Veteran who has been honorably discharged are burial in a national cemetery, a grave marker, a memorial flag presented to the family, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate presented to the family.
Burial in a cemetery is limited to one of the 131 national cemeteries. But, that said, some states have separate programs that also provide free burial to veterans from their particular state. These cemeteries are largely in areas where national cemeteries are not available or are in danger of becoming over crowded. For more information, readers are encouraged to check with their state government. In most cases, information about the veterans cemeteries – if there is one available in a particular state – will be readily available on the state-run website. In almost all cases in which a state-run cemetery buries a veteran, the state cemetery will be reimbursed – at least in part – by the Veterans Administration. Burial in a national cemetery is on a space-available basis, and burial plots are not allowed to be reserved in advance. Since there is no guarantee that a veteran will be able to be buried in the cemetery of his or her choice – and certainly not in the exact spot of his or her choice – many veterans and their families choose to work with state-run or private cemeteries instead. Doing this normally does entail some additional costs, however, and we discuss that in our section on private cemetery benefits below.
The simplest, and least expensive, way to take advantage of the cemetery grave marker benefit for veterans is to accept burial in one of the national cemeteries. As with the overall burial benefits discussed above, families of deceased veterans who accept this benefit are required to accept headstones and grave markers provided by the national cemetery and only limited personalization options are available. Each national cemetery has headstone policies that vary, but, in general, national cemeteries require that a headstone list only the deceased’s name and military rank, dates of birth and death, service branch and service dates. Other amenities — such as an epitaph, mention of organizations other than the military, and mentions of family members and such – are subject to rules established by the Veterans Administration with the consultation of the cemetery director and his or her staff. The need (or desire) for more headstone personalization options than can be afforded at a national cemetery is often the reason why veterans or their families choose burial in a private or a state-run cemetery.
Each burial in a national cemetery includes a free memorial flag presented to the family of the deceased by a representative of the United States military. If a burial ceremony is arranged at the cemetery – through a private funeral director, for an additional charge – the flag can be presented to the deceased’s family by a representative of the United States Military. Or the family can arrange to pick up a flag at a local Veteran’s Administration office. The flag is given to the family folded in a traditional football form, and many families store theirs in a specially made flag case (sold separately by private retailers) along with medals and other memorabilia from the deceased’s military career. In cases in which the deceased died during military duty, the flag presented to the family is larger than the others and is intended to be displayed draped over a casket during a memorial service. Before burial, the flag is traditionally removed from the casket and folded into a triangle and presented to the family as the other flags are. The Veteran’s Administration is very careful to note in many public documents that it is financially able to provide only one memorial flag per veteran. Lost or damaged flags are simply unable to be replaced by the United States government. Likewise, while non-veterans spouses and dependents of a veteran are entitled to burial and a headstone in a national cemetery, they are not entitled to a memorial flag provided by the Veterans Administration.
The Presidential Memorial Certificate is sometimes presented to the deceased’s family during a memorial ceremony, but federal law requires only that it be mailed to the family. Multiple copies may be ordered for free using forms provided by the Veterans Administration. The certificate always bears the signature of the current President of the United States and, since 1958, has uniformly included the following text: “This certificate is awarded by a grateful nation in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country in the Armed Forces of the United States.”
Veterans cemetery benefits apply, in a limited way, also to family members of the deceased. Spouses and anyone who is a dependent of the deceased (basically, this means children under the age of 18 years) are entitled to the same cemetery benefits as the veteran – with the exception of the flag and certificate as mentioned above. There are some limitations to this offer that give some families hesitance at accepting the federal government’s offer, however. The first of this is the limited availability of graves in most of the federally run national cemeteries. Because plots in the national cemeteries cannot be reserved, it is sometimes difficult for cemeteries to guarantee married couples that they can have their graves next to one another. In many cases, veterans who are married can request that their spouses be buried next to them in the national cemetery, and the government does usually make attempts to honor such requests, but the cemetery is under no legal obligation to make sure those requests are honored. The same is true of children of the deceased. Further still, complications can arise due to the impermanent nature of many families these days. (It can sometimes take a family court’s official order to determine just who, in fact, is an official spouse or child of a veteran.) And still further is the issue of what to do when a spouse of a veteran dies first.
It is for these reasons that many families choose to forgo accepting the cemetery benefits the Veterans Administration offers for deceased veterans and, instead, pay extra money for plots and grave stones in private cemeteries. It is true that, relatively speaking, the Veterans Administration offers just a small portion of the total cost of burial in many private cemeteries (just hundreds of dollars in many cases, while burial cost can easily run up to $6,000 for a typical plot and headstone), but the peace of mind of knowing that an entire family can be buried near each other is worth the extra price for many families. To be certain, this inability for national cemeteries to guarantee – with any great certainty – that veterans can be buried near their entire families is a significant criticism of the United States Veteran Cemetery benefits program – a program that is considered the envy of the world in many other respects. But some of the people and groups that manage the state-run cemeteries for veterans have figured out how to address this issue on their own properties. And, still further, many family cemeteries offer space to veterans and their families for free or very reduced costs, and a lot of private cemeteries that are generally open to the public also offer low cost (or on occasion even free) burial plots and headstones to veterans and their families. In general, it rarely hurts for the family of a veteran who has deceased to simply ask around for low cost solutions to their memorial needs for their loved ones.
Who is Eligible for Benefits
Determining the eligibility for veteran cemetery benefits is fairly straightforward in the case of the veteran himself or herself. All that’s required is that the veteran be honorably discharged from his or her military duty. The length of service, the service branch, or rank plays no role a veteran’s eligibility for burial in a national cemetery or for other burial benefits.
As we alluded to in the previous section, this can be complicated in the case of family members of veterans. In general, anyone who believes a claim can be legitimate filed should contact the nearest office of the Veterans Administration, Much information and even service request forms can also be completed online in most cases.
Private Cemetery Benefits
When working with a private cemetery, to get the benefits entitled to them under the law (as we have discussed several times in this article), it is best to follow the advice of a funeral director. Most funeral directors who work for for-profit funeral homes and cemeteries in this day are very well schooled in government policies regarding what services will be re-reimbursed and for what amounts. And, of course, they have a vested interest in assuring that you, their customer, get properly reimbursed for goods and services you would buy from them directly. It is important to remember that funeral directors depend in large part upon word of mouth referrals for their customer service marketing, so giving veterans excellent service and the lowest prices their company can afford will almost always lead to increased business for themselves in future months. Luring a customer entitled to free burial in a national cemetery to buy a family plot in a locally-owned cemetery is considered quite a boon in the world of cemeteries, and funeral directors may find themselves working extra hard to win such a customer for their establishments.
How to Claim Benefits
There are two common ways to make a claim of veteran cemetery benefits for a person who is entitled to them. The first is to work directly with the Veteran’s Administration itself. The cemetery benefits section of the Veteran’s Administration website is a wealth of information on this topic, and anyone whose deceased relative may be entitled to receive benefits would do well to explore that page and, if need be, contact someone whose telephone number or email are listed.
The next method is to consult a funeral director who is mostly likely already acquainted with the national cemetery program. The down side to this, of course, is that to get the help, you will likely have to secure the funeral home’s services in arranging the memorial service and burial, and, for many families, that means an extra expense that may not necessarily be in a position to afford. If a family works directly with the Veteran’s Administration without getting a funeral director involved, it is possible to spend absolutely no money on a very beautiful memorial service for a loved one. This means, of course, relying upon family and friends to attend to the many details that a funeral director otherwise would. But getting professionals involved is likely a good way to add $1,000 or more (probably more) to the overall price of a funeral service and burial. And, from their very nature, many veterans are opposed to doing something like that.