A Matter of Honor

Veterans Day, November 11, is when we pause and salute the members of the U.S. Armed Forces, present and past. Many people pay their respects at national cemeteries. What do you know about these final resting places?

Everyone gets around to dying, even our nation’s heroes. Burials tell much about the people we are, what’s important to us, and how we identify ourselves. The men and women who’ve been in the United States military can choose to spend their eternity with those they served alongside.

“I’ve ‘lived’ in three cemeteries in my career,” says Steve Muro, acting undersecretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Memorial Affairs. “Those stones tell us a lot about history. It tells us who stood up and wore the uniform for our country.”

 VA’s National Cemetery Administration maintains 131 cemeteries in 39 states, as well as in Puerto Rico. It has an additional 33 soldiers’ lots and monument sites. VA also helps states build their own veterans cemeteries and provides free headstones and markers to qualifying veterans buried in private or public cemeteries.

The national cemeteries were born in one of America’s darkest and deadliest hours. In 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law legislation authorizing them. That year, 14 were created. After the end of hostilities between the North and South in 1865, recovery teams visited battlefields, churchyards, and other places seeking the thousands of hastily-buried Union soldiers.

By 1870, about 300,000 war dead were moved to 73 national cemeteries for their final rest. In 1873, the right of burial in a national cemetery was extended to all honorably discharged Civil War Union soldiers. Through the years, qualifications for burial in national cemeteries expanded.

As the number of national cemeteries grew, responsibility for them shifted from the War Department to the Department of Interior’s National Park Service (NPS) and finally to VA. The Department of the Army maintains two national cemeteries: Arlington and the Soldiers’ & Airmen’s Home National Cemetery, both close to Washington, D.C.

NPS still maintains 14 national cemeteries. Two of them are active: the Andersonville National Cemetery in Georgia and the Andrew Jackson National Cemetery in Tennessee. Their burial eligibility requirements are the same as for those maintained by the National Cemetery Administration. In all, there are 147 national cemeteries.

State Facilities

There are 89 state veterans’ cemeteries, including two in U.S. territories. Six more state cemeteries are under construction. Four of the 89 are not doing additional interments. In 1978, Congress created the State Cemetery Grants Program to help states establish, expand, or improve veterans’ cemeteries. Most, but not all, states with veterans’ cemeteries have taken advantage of the grant program.

“If you are unfamiliar with our state cemetery grant program, let me tell you just a little about it,” said Muro at the American GI Forum National Convention in Corpus Christi, Tex., in 2009. “VA provides grants that cover 100% of the costs to build and equip the cemetery. The state is then responsible to operate and maintain the cemetery. Since the program’s inception in 1980, VA has provided nearly $362 million to states, and they have opened 74 cemeteries in 38 states and territories. Last year state veterans cemeteries provided nearly 25,000 burials.”

In general, requirements for burial in state cemeteries are the same as for national cemeteries. However, most states restrict interments to residents, except Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Utah. California offers cremation interments only, and ten states restrict burials to residents of their state veterans’ homes.


Any servicemember who dies during active duty can be interred at a national cemetery. Veterans discharged under conditions other than dishonorable, with some conditions and exceptions, also qualify. Enlisted personnel whose service began after September 7, 1980, and officers whose service began after October 16, 1981, must have 24 continuous months of service, or, in the case of reservists, the full period for which they were called to active duty.

Citizens of the United States who entered in the militaries of allied nations during times of war in which this country participated qualify to be buried in national cemeteries, if their discharges were honorable by death or otherwise and they remained U.S. citizens.

Reservists, National Guard and Air National Guard members, and veterans who qualify for interments at national cemeteries are those who:

– Qualify, or would qualify if 60 or older, for retirement pay under Chapter 1223, title 10, of the U.S. Code

-  Die while undergoing government-paid medical treatment for injuries incurred, or diseases contracted, under honorable conditions while serving or while traveling to or from authorized training or deployment

Additionally, some commissioned officers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Health Service qualify for interment at national cemeteries, as do Merchant Mariners with ocean-going service between December 7, 1941, and December 31, 1946. The exception is those mariners who served after August 15, 1945, and died before enactment of Public Law 105-386, November 11, 1998. 

Some members of the Philippine Armed Forces also qualify for burial in America’s national cemeteries: those who are citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. at time of death and had served before July 1, 1946, in the military forces of the Commonwealth of the Philippines while those forces were in the service of the U.S. and died on or after November 1, 2000. Philippine veterans who enlisted into the U.S. Armed Forces with the consent of their government under the Armed Forces Voluntary Recruitment Act and died after December 15, 2003, also qualify. 

“Last year we did more than 106,000 burials, and about 80% were veterans,” offers Muro. “The others were wives and children.”

Spouses and surviving spouses of eligible veterans are entitled to interment at national cemeteries even when the veterans are not buried in or memorialized at them. Those whose marriages to qualifying spouses ended in divorce or annulment don’t qualify.

Surviving spouses who remarry can be interred at national cemeteries, if the qualifying veteran died on or before January 1, 2000.

Minor children of servicemembers and qualifying veterans can be interred in national cemeteries if they’re unmarried and under age 21, or 23 if pursuing full-time courses of instruction at approved educational facilities. If children of veterans have permanent physical or mental disabilities and are incapable of self-support before reaching 21, or 23 if pursuing full-time courses of instruction at approved educational facilities, they also qualify.

Grave Sites

The National Cemetery Administration may bury eligible individuals in any VA cemetery with space. Only one grave site or columbarium niche can be used for all eligible family members, unless soil conditions make this impossible, or when the number of eligible family members requires more than one grave or niche.

Grave sites cannot be reserved before they’re needed for burials. However, VA honors reservations made up to 1962, when cemeteries were under the jurisdiction of the Department of Army. Cemetery directors assign sites. Some national cemeteries cannot accept full-casket burials anymore but can inter cremated remains.

People can lose qualification to be interred at national and state cemeteries it they’re convicted of capital crimes with sentences of life imprisonment or the death penalty. Additionally, qualification can be revoked if there is clear and convincing evidence of guilt of a capital crime, but conviction was impossible due to flight or death. Additionally, those convicted of subversive activities after September 1, 1959, cannot be interred in national cemeteries. The President can grant pardons that reinstate interment qualifications.

Headstones, Flags, and More 

Burials in national cemeteries are free, as are the headstones or markers. There’s also no charge for perpetual maintenance. U.S. flags are also provided for draping caskets, or accompanying urns. The flags are given to next of kin, or close associates of deceased veterans. When national cemeteries have the Avenue of Flags program, burial flags may be donated to them for flying on appropriate days.

VA provides a burial-cost benefit to veterans who, at time of death, were entitled to receive pensions or compensations. Additionally, the benefit is available to a veteran who dies in a VA hospital, nursing home, domiciliary, or a hospital or nursing home VA has contracted with.

Additionally, a next of kin, relative, or friend can request a Presidential Memorial Certificate for any deceased veteran who was discharged under honorable conditions. Requests for the certificate go through local VA regional offices.

Making Arrangements 

Funeral directors and next of kin can make interment arrangements for a veteran or qualifying family member at the time of need by contacting the desired national cemetery. DD-214s are usually sufficient for determining veterans’ eligibility. Cemetery staff set tentative dates for burial, pending verification of service and character of discharge. Directors approve dates after eligibility determinations.

Those choosing cremation can be buried, placed in garden niches, or in columbariums when they’re available. National cemeteries won’t receive urns until directors determine eligibility and confirm arrangements. In some cases, cremated remains can be scattered in cremation gardens.

Some national cemeteries have memorial areas to commemorate those whose remains are not available for burial or were buried at sea. VA provides headstones or markers for those sections of cemeteries.

VA doesn’t handle funeral military honors—the Department of Defense does through the Honoring Those Who Served program. Military honors are available whether a veteran is interred in a national, state, public, or private cemetery.

Muro hopes more people will visit national and state veterans’ cemeteries. “When you think about it, we are who we are, as the United States, because of the veterans who served,” he explains.

Busiest Day

The busiest visiting day at national cemeteries is unexpected.

“Our busiest day of visitation is Mother’s Day at all national cemeteries,” Muro says. “The next busiest are Memorial and Veterans days. I don’t know why, other than we all have this special thing for our mothers. Mothers are veterans, too.”

In 2009, national cemeteries had about 7 million visitors.

Make Wishes Known

Muro hopes more qualifying veterans will make their wishes to be buried in national cemeteries known.

“We’re doing what we can do to get out and let veterans know what the service is,” he says. “The National Cemetery Administration is the only federal agency to ever score a 95 out of a possible 100 on the Customer Service Satisfaction Survey put out by Michigan Business School.”

He also proudly notes that the cemetery administration goes out of its way to contract with veterans with disabilities and is expanding its training programs to ensure everything is done with proper knowledge of and regard to etiquette and sensitivity.

Veterans and qualifying family members should state their wishes and assemble needed documents to ensure burials in national cemeteries.


The national cemeteries are an enduring monument to courageous servicemen and -women. Like all enduring monuments, they need maintenance. VA is using about $4.4 million of the $1.4 billion it received from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to make repairs at several national cemeteries. In all, 49 monuments at 36 sites in 23 states will benefit from repairs. Most are associated with the American Civil War.

The National Soldiers’ Monument at Ohio’s Dayton National Cemetery will be the most expensive. Its 30-foot-tall marble column topped with a soldier at parade rest was dedicated by President Rutherford Hayes in 1877. Vandals defaced it in 1990.

The oldest monument slated for repairs under the Recovery Act allocation is Dade’s Pyramids at the St. Augustine National Cemetery, Florida. The three 6-foot-tall pyramids cover the remains of 1,468 soldiers who gave their lives during the Second Seminole War (1835–1842). The structures were built in 1842 and named after Major Francis Langhorne Dade.

In addition to the stimulus dollars, about $26 million has been allocated to raise, realign, and clean headstones and grave markers, some $6 million for energy-conservation measures at national cemeteries, $9.5 million to repairing roads and buildings, and another $6 million for operations equipment.

About 3 million veterans are laid to rest at the national cemeteries’ combined 19,000 acres.

Additional and updated information about national cemeteries is at www.cem.va.gov.


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