VA Plan to Issue Urns, Memorial Plaques Sparks Concerns Veterans Will Be Barred from Burial with Spouses

Winter weather at Arlington National Cemetery
Winter weather at Arlington National Cemetery at Arlington, Va., Jan. 16, 2024. (U.S. Army photo by Daryl Vaca)

The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to start issuing urns and commemorative plaques to the families of deceased veterans this year, but the move has drawn criticism that it could block those veterans from being buried with their spouses, among other concerns.

The National Funeral Directors Association and the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as others, recently submitted public comments objecting to the VA's proposed rule change, which was published for public comment before being implemented.

They took issue with one provision of the new rule in particular, which says that once a family member opts to receive the urn or plaque on a deceased veteran's behalf, that veteran's remains may not be interred in a national cemetery. Also, the VA won't provide any other type of marker for that veteran to be buried in any cemetery.

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The comments on the VA plan to provide the urns and plaques raised a long list of concerns: Families could be caught off guard after accepting an urn or plaque; it could unnecessarily preclude veterans from being buried together with their spouses; the offer of a plaque or urn will represent a "false choice" because families might feel like they have to forgo the benefit in case of wanting to inter the remains in the future; and future generations might mishandle a veteran's remains that could otherwise be securely interred.

The National Funeral Directors Association, commenting on behalf of its 10,000-plus member funeral homes, suggested that the VA allow veterans' cremated remains to be buried in the same veterans cemetery plot with those of their spouses who die later because, no matter what, "the plot must be opened," and including the urn "would not add an additional cost" for the VA.

"We understand that double-dipping benefits (receiving the urn benefit and then the burial plot benefit) is prohibited," according to the association. "However, a veteran and his/her spouse are both entitled to distinct burial benefits. So, while a veteran who receives an urn is no longer eligible for additional benefits like burial, the spouse still has several final disposition benefits to choose from, including ground burial."

As written, the association argues, the rule could unnecessarily result in a non-veteran spouse buried in a veterans cemetery where the veteran isn't allowed.

A VA spokesperson said the department is reviewing the comments and expects to publish the final rule and start issuing urns and plaques this year.

A 2021 law change expanded the section of the U.S. Code that already authorized the VA to issue "headstones, markers, medallions, and burial receptacles" by adding "urns and commemorative plaques," according to information provided with the proposed new rule in a Federal Register notice on Nov. 20, 2023. The new authority came as part of the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020, enacted the following year.

The urns and plaques will denote the individuals' status as veterans and will be furnished at the government’s expense.

The Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs argued that an item of "such relatively low cost" as an urn or plaque shouldn't deny veterans the "significant" benefit of burial in a national cemetery, a benefit "that also provides perpetual care."

The department said the common practice of waiting to inter cremated remains until a spouse later dies, so the couple's remains can be buried together, sets up family members down the road for an unhappy surprise when they find out the consequences of someone in the past having accepted an urn or plaque.

Also concerning, according to the Minnesota department, is the possibility that a state or tribe "might inadvertently violate the terms of federal grant funding" if they inter veterans in a government cemetery whose family previously accepted a plaque or urn. Cuts in grant funding could significantly affect the cemeteries' budgets.

Both the state and the National Funeral Directors Association cited the worry that families might not claim their veterans' remains following cremation once they realize that accepting the plaque or urn had precluded burial in a national cemetery.

The National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs said denying interment of a veteran's cremated remains based on the family's acceptance of a plaque or urn "is counter to the larger purpose of 'honoring' veterans ... wherein interment is an eligibility and services are done with compassion and dignity and the commitment of perpetual care."

Families should have the opportunity to return the urns and plaques in the future to prevent subsequent generations from losing the remains and to reestablish the right to burial in a national cemetery, the association said.

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