The government is obligated to pay for opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, a headstone or marker, and a burial flag if an eligible veteran and their dependents are buried or inurned in a national cemetery, Arlington, or National Park cemetery.
Those buried in a state veterans’ cemetery are provided burial services administered by the individual state rather than the VA. The applicable services differ significantly from state to state, cemetery to cemetery.
Though the government may not be obligated in all cases to pay the costs for a veteran buried or inurned in a private cemetery, surviving spouses or dependents may qualify for reimbursement from the VA if they paid for the veteran’s burial or funeral and have not been reimbursed by any alternative source (another government agency, burial insurance, deceased veteran’s employer). The VA additionally authorizes headstones and markers, presidential memorial certificates (PMC’s), and burial flags.
What the VA doesn’t cover
The VA is not compelled to pay cremation costs, embalming, casket or urn costs, or transportation to the cemetery, despite where a veteran or eligible dependent is buried. If a veteran qualifies, however, certain expenses are available for reimbursement.
Special circumstances warrant government coverage of these costs such as:
- When a military member dies during active duty the military service (not the VA) covers most of the costs: cremation, embalming, casket or urn, funeral director services, transportation of remains. The military pays for family members to join the remains from the place of death to the funeral home. Active duty for training (ADT) and inactive duty training (IDT) Reserves and National Guard members are included.
- The military pays for transport of the remains of military retirees and their family members who die during a time admitted to a military hospital if the burial location is no farther than the deceased’s prior address.
- If a veteran dies while admitted to a VA facility (VA medical center or nursing home), the VA is required to pay the cost of transportation of the remains to a national cemetery if the cemetery is no farther than the deceased’s prior address.
The amount covered by the VA
What the VA is required to cover is dependent upon whether the death was service related. Those that die as a result of service-related medical conditions or injuries are paid more by the VA than those that die from non-service-related deaths.
When the cause of death is not service related, reimbursements are categorized as a burial and funeral expense allowance or a plot or interment allowance.
A payment up to $2,000 toward burial expenses for service-related deaths on or after September 11, 2001 is allocated by the VA. A payment of $1,500 is provided for deaths before September 11, 2001. All or part of the cost of transportation of the deceased may be reimbursed by the VA if the veteran is buried in a VA national cemetery.
Benefits provided by the VA are not paid in advance: copies of funeral bills indicating they have been paid in full are required for VA reimbursement. A claim is required to be filed within two years from the date of death if the death wasn’t related to the service. Service-related deaths have no time restriction for claims.
Furnishing markers and headstones
A veteran is entitled to a headstone or grave marker if buried or commemorated in a national cemetery, state veterans’ cemetery, or National Park cemetery. By request the VA is also responsible for headstone or marker embellishments for an unmarked grave of a deceased eligible veteran (“Eligibility for Military burial”).
The VA is also responsible for headstones or markers already marked with a private headstone or maker for eligible veterans who died on or after November 1, 1990.
The VA doesn’t charge for headstones or markers provided, but requires the submission of appropriate paperwork (“Obtaining markers and headstones”).
Organization of placement in a private cemetery are the responsibility of the applicant though there is no charge for the headstone or marker itself. All setting costs are at private expense.
There are various types of marker and headstones the VA offers:
- Upright headstones: Upright headstones weigh 230 pounds, available in marble or granite at 42 inches high, 13 inches wide, and 4 inches thick.
- Flat grave markers: Flat grave markers weigh 18 pounds and are available in bronze at 24 inches long and 12 inches wide, with a ¾-inch rise. Flat granite and flat marble grave markers weigh 130 pounds and are 24 inches long, 12 inches wide, and 4 inches thick. Anchor bolts, nuts, and washers for fastening to a base are embellished with the marker, but the government doesn’t embellish the base.
- Bronze niche marker: Bronze niche markers weigh approximately 3 pounds at 8 ½ inches long, 5 ½ inches wide, with a 7/16-inch rise. Mounting bolts and washers are embellished with the marker.
- Private headstone or marker medallion: Embellished in absence of traditional government headstone or markers to veterans who died on or after November 1, 1990 whose grave is marked with a privately purchased headstone or marker.
Unless they are buried in a national cemetery, National Park Service cemetery, Arlington, or state veterans’ cemetery, spouses and dependents aren’t eligible for government-decorated headstones or markers.
Adding an inscription
Legal name, branch of service, year of birth and death are compulsory items on government-decorated headstones that are paid for by the government.
Additional information can be inscribed onto headstones at the expense of the government including:
- Month and day of birth
- Month and day of death
- Highest rank attained
- Medals earned
- War service
- Emblem of belief
War service constitutes active-duty service during an official length of war although a veteran doesn’t have to have served in the actual place of war. “Vietnam” may be written on the headstone of a veteran that served during the Vietnamese War period but did not serve in the war itself.
In the cases of potential spouse or dependent information inscribed on a headstone, a request is available to reserve such future inscriptions at private expense. Two lines of space may be reserved on flat markers as a result of space limitations. For upright marble or granite headstones, reserved space is unnecessary as a result of the reverse side being available for future inscriptions.
If space is feasible, extra items for inscription may be possible such as nicknames (expressive formats are possible) and military or civilian credentials or accomplishments as long as they are authorized by the VA.
Replacing headstones and markers
The government is also obligated to pay for the replacement of headstones and markers previously decorated if in a poor state, illegible, stolen, or vandalized. If a mistake is made in the inscription, if it was damaged in transit, or if the material or craftsmanship doesn’t meet contract specifications, the VA replaces the headstone or marker.
A government headstone or marker in a private cemetery that is damaged by cemetery employees is covered or replaced by the cemetery.
Providing presidential memorial certificates
A presidential memorial certificate (PMC) is an engraved paper certificate signed by the current president honoring the memory of honorably discharged veterans initiated in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy. A veteran who has received a military discharge that the VA doesn’t consider dishonorable is eligible for the PMC.
A request for a PCM can be made by the next of kin, a family member, a loved one, or a friend of a qualifying veteran from the VA. Mulle certificates can be authorized. There is no time restriction for request.
Receiving a burial flag
A United States flag is provided by the VA free of charge to drape the casket or accompany the urn of a deceased eligible veteran (“Eligibility for Military Burials”). It is furnished in order to commemorate the memory of a veteran’s military service.
The next of kin—or a friend who requests the flag in lieu of kin—is awarded the flag as a keepsake after the funeral service (“Final Salute with Military Funeral Honors”).
Memorial flags are irreplaceable if lost, damaged, or stolen and the law allocates only one burial flag to be furnished at government expense.
A special flag case is used to display the flag in most cases that are available in military surplus stores or online.
It is not recommended to fly the memorial flag on a flag pole due to its size and fabric, which can be quickly damaged by inclement weather.