America's Duty to Those Who Gave the Last Full Measure of Devotion
Over one hundred and fifty years after President Lincoln signed into law the initial legislation setting aside national cemeteries, most veterans today will not be able to be buried in these dedicated grounds.
Originally intended “for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country,” Congress has successively broadened its criteria for national internment to include the majority of all veterans.
Currently, all armed forces and veterans who have met minimum active service duty requirements, and who have been discharged under conditions other than dishonorable, are eligible for this right. Also eligible are qualified members of the Reserve components, the National Guard, and Reserve Officers Training Corps.
Congress has designated around 20,000 acres for national cemeteries, sacred spaces that to date have witnessed around 4 million burials. (This does not include overseas areas maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which includes 25 permanent American military cemeteries.) Yet of the 134 national cemeteries and 33 other managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), over 90 are closed to new interments or are restricted to cremated remains.
This matters not only to the estimated 9,846,440 military veterans aged 65 and over alive today, but also to the entire 21.4 million strong veteran population. Choosing to be buried in a national cemetery has become increasingly popular among the veteran population—since 1973 there’s been a 244 percent increase in annual interments. The communal ties that bind many veterans together in life understandably influence their desire to share their final resting place, and most consider it an honor to be buried with their fellow veterans.
However, only 19 percent of the 566,000 veterans who died in 2014 were laid to rest alongside their uniformed comrades in national cemeteries. This does not include those who wished to be interred in the 150 or so tribal or state operated cemeteries.
VA research has found that veterans typically do not pursue burial in a national (or state) cemetery if it lies further than 75 miles from home and family. Yet, many veterans (around 5.2 million) tend to live in rural communities across the US. Of those enrolled in the VA, more than a third—36 percent—live in rural areas. By comparison, only 18 percent of Americans currently live far from towns. Older veterans and their families living in the countryside face long driving distances, a lack of public transportation, and a lower than average household income.
Forty-three percent of rural-based veterans earn less than $26,000 per year according to VA data. Many simply can’t afford the $8,000- $10,000 price tag of the average funeral and burial, and prefer to be buried in a national cemetery so as not to burden their families. Burial benefits for eligible veterans include a gravesite in a national cemetery, the actual interment, a government headstone or marker, a burial flag and Presidential Memorial Certificate, and the perpetual care of the grave at no cost to the family. There is a catch, however.
Veterans and their families must cover the costs of a coffin and the funeral. While the VA today covers the cost of a coffin or urn for indigent veterans under the Dignified Burial and other Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2012, it only does so if the veteran is buried in a national—not state—cemetery.
Only 40 of the 50 states (and Puerto Rico) have national cemeteries, and many of these are closed to new interments due to space constraints. The VA will not pay for a veteran’s burial in a local state cemetery, but will pay to transport the body to a faraway national cemetery. Sadly, this often makes it impossible for the family of the deceased to visit the grave, and even to attend the burial.
Proposed legislation by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) seeks to address this problem. For indigent veterans or those without next of kin, the Charles Duncan Buried With Honor Act would authorize the VA “to furnish caskets and urns for burial in cemeteries of States and tribal organizations.” Supported by the VA, the bill makes good sense and builds on an already existing relationship between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and state cemeteries.
Created in 1978, the VA State Cemetery Grants Program helps states and tribal governments by providing gravesites for veterans “where VA’s national cemeteries cannot fully satisfy their burial needs.” While the VA has opened 19 new national cemeteries since 1999 and plans approximately 18 more (North Dakota, for example, will receive its first national cemetery), faraway locations and transportation costs will remain a problem for many veterans and their families.
In 2009, in recognition of President Lincoln’s founding of the national cemetery system, the Veteran Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration installed tablets with the Gettysburg Address throughout the entire network of national cemeteries. The famous speech invokes the duties of the living to the “unfinished work” of those who “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Hopefully, Congress will heed Lincoln’s request, and act to honor America’s dead veterans.