En español | Up until the Civil War, soldiers were often buried where they fell on the battlefield, a practice that President Lincoln said was no way to treat those who had "borne the battle." In 1862, Congress authorized the purchase of land for the country's first 14 veteran cemeteries. Today, there are 155 national military cemeteries and 119 more state, territory or tribal-operated cemeteries.
Although these federal burial grounds are long established, many are unaware of the broad eligibility and benefits the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) National Cemetery Administration (NCA) offers to veterans and their families. AARP spoke with Matthew Quinn, the VA's undersecretary for memorial affairs, about common misconceptions around the burial benefits program.
1. Burial benefits are not just for combat veterans.
Most veterans who didn't receive a dishonorable discharge are eligible for a burial benefit. A spouse or minor child of a veteran is also eligible and, in some cases, an unmarried adult dependent child of a veteran.
"There's a perception that you had to serve in conflict in order to be considered a veteran or earn your benefits," Quinn said. "They have earned this by serving in our nation's military."
2. Burial benefits are not limited to military cemeteries.
The VA provides a standard issue headstone or marker to any veteran who wishes to be buried in a private cemetery, free of charge. Eligibility requirements are different for this benefit, but combat service is still not required. Spouses and dependents are ineligible for benefits at a nonmilitary burial ground.
3. Arrangements can be made in advance.
Since 2016, the VA has accepted a preneed determination of eligibility to become preapproved for burial at a VA national cemetery. Doing so makes the burial planning process much easier for families when a death occurs. The process can be started with these four steps:
- Determine eligibility.
- Chose a VA national cemetery. (Note: State cemeteries should be contacted before filing a preneed application. Some state cemeteries have other specific requirements. Additionally, Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen's Home Cemetery should be contacted at 877-907-8585.)
- Gather the supporting documentation you'll need. In most cases it is a DD Form 214. In instances when there is trouble finding records, the National Personnel Records Center or Veterans Benefit Administration should be contacted.
- Fill out an application for each person requesting a preneed determination.
"When the time of need comes, that's already done. And it's one less thing that family has to worry about when they're going through the grieving process," Quinn said.
If pre-eligibility is not filed, families should still discuss end-of-life requests and know where military discharge papers are kept.
4. Advance planning isn't required.
In instances when a veteran dies unexpectedly and hasn't filed their preneed eligibility, Quinn suggested that families call 800-535-1117. The NCA will discuss the next steps with the families and review the required documentation. If a family doesn't know where certain records are, the NCA will reach out to the National Personnel Records Center or the Veterans Benefit Administration. If a veteran didn't request to be buried in a military cemetery, eligibility can still be established to receive a marker at a private cemetery.
"Our mission is to honor every individual who's served this nation and to ensure that they are never forgotten," Quinn said. "We will help that family through it. It's why we do what we do."
When families don't have the veteran's discharge documents, it usually takes a few days to find the needed documents to confirm eligibility. If documents are already in hand, the funeral director or family member can often reserve an interment date at a nearby national cemetery on the day he or she calls.
5. Some families are eligible for expense reimbursements.
Depending on the veteran's service history and where a veteran is buried, the VA may pay a burial allowance or payment of up to $2,000 to help cover certain burial-related expenses. Otherwise, benefits may include a grave site in any of the national cemeteries where space is available, opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, a government headstone or marker, a burial flag and a Presidential Memorial Certificate at no cost to the family.
6. National military cemetery burials include a memorial web page.
Family members can visit the unique page of any veteran who's buried in a national cemetery and post photos, documents or memories in what is called the Veterans Legacy Memorial. By Veterans Day (Nov. 11), the NCA hopes that pages will be expanded to include those interred at state, territorial and tribal cemeteries.
"It's a way to keep the memory of that veteran alive," Quinn said. "And to remember that we should always honor those who have served our nation."
7. Burial benefits are underutilized.
In fiscal year 2020, over 80,000 veterans were interred in the VA's national cemeteries, representing only about 14 percent of veterans who died during the same time period, according to census data and other government estimates. (Another 4 percent were interred in state, territory or tribal cemeteries.) In private cemeteries, more than 140,000 standard issue headstones or markers were distributed from the VA for veterans’ grave sites. This means about 58 percent of veterans did not receive any burial benefit.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency's Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.