The Department of Veterans Affairs is raising awareness of little-used benefits for veterans: burial at a VA, state or tribal veterans cemetery, and headstones or markers for veterans buried in private cemeteries.
According to VA officials, just 20% of eligible veterans who died last year were buried in a VA-managed or -supported cemetery, a benefit that comes at no cost to the veteran's family. And fewer than half who qualified for a burial allowance or headstone used the opportunity, according to Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Matt Quinn.
As the VA nears the 50th anniversary of assuming management of national cemeteries, the department is spreading the word to veterans and families that vets can apply for eligibility before they die, taking care of the needed paperwork beforehand to ease the financial and emotional burden on their families and make their wishes known.
"I want families to know that they can honor the services of their veteran with a VA-provided headstone, marker or medallion, but I also want every veteran or veteran's family to know they have the option of being interred in a national, state, territorial or tribal veterans cemetery," Quinn said during a roundtable with reporters Tuesday.
The VA manages 155 cemeteries nationwide and funds an additional 121 state, territorial and tribal veterans cemeteries. Veterans who are eligible for VA burial benefits include all who were discharged under something other than dishonorable conditions; spouses or surviving spouses of eligible veterans; dependent children; and some others.
The VA has a goal to ensure that 95% of the nation's 19 million veterans live within 75 miles of a VA or VA-supported cemetery; currently, the department is "just shy" of 94%, according to Quinn.
"It's that final benefit that the veteran has earned and that the nation can show to that veteran's family appreciation for their sacrifice and service," Quinn said.
During a meeting of the Veterans' Family, Caregiver and Survivor Advisory Committee on Wednesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough noted that the burial benefits are underutilized and said the department is planning additional outreach to veterans to publicize them, rolling information on their availability into the information provided to those who use the VA's new life insurance program, VALife.
About 85% of eligible veterans use education benefits offered through the VA, while slightly more than one-third utilize VA health care. But just 15% of veterans are buried in VA-managed cemeteries.
"The uptake on the NCA [National Cemetery Administration] benefit is nowhere near where it should be," McDonough said. "We are meant to be there for you every step of the way."
The department is expanding opportunities for veterans to be buried in VA or supported cemeteries as it closes in on its goal to make them more accessible. The VA plans to open a columbarium-only cemetery in Queens, New York, this year, part of an urban initiative for the NCA that will provide burial sites for cremated remains in cities with few in-ground burial options. A columbarium is a building that holds cremated remains.
Along with another urban columbarium in Indianapolis, Indiana, and two new rural cemeteries in Elko, Nevada, and Cedar City, Utah, the VA plans to add 310,000 sites for interment of cremains in the next several years, for a total of 4.2 million gravesites.
The VA provided roughly 350,000 headstones for veterans' graves and 12,000 medallions to adorn the private gravestones of veterans in 2021. But given that nearly 642,000 veterans die each year, the number is a fraction of those eligible for those benefits and more.
In addition to burial at no cost in VA and VA-supported cemeteries, veterans are eligible for headstones or medallions to place on private headstones as well as burial allowances for veterans who die of service-connected conditions and prefer to be buried in a non-VA cemetery.
Veterans who die in a VA medical facility of a non-service-connected condition also are eligible for limited burial and plot allowances for interment at a private cemetery.
Quinn urged veterans to consider applying for eligibility for burial benefits as part of their estate planning. They can learn about applying for benefits on the VA's website without any obligation to be buried in a national cemetery or charge, Quinn said.
"This is one of the best ways to ensure a veteran's family knows their loved ones' wishes and that NCA is able to provide the benefits for service to our country. I have done this myself," he said.
Editors' note: This story was updated to correct the number of grave medallions issued in 2021, as well as the percentage of eligible veterans who use VA health care.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.