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Military Cemeteries and Burials: The Basics

For those who serve, there can be few sights more moving than that of a spouse being handed a neatly folded American flag at the funeral of their loved one. The respect and reverence shown to those service men and women who have passed away is a direct result of the honorable service they perform and is why even soldiers whose remains have not been identified are shown such respect at places like Arlington National Cemetery. It's also why, under federal law, all eligible veterans are entitled to military honors at their funerals upon request.

If you or a loved one have served and are interested in having a funeral with military honors at either a private cemetery or a veterans' cemetery, there are some important things you need to know. This article will cover the basics of military cemeteries and burials and can help to give you that peace of mind you've earned.

What Are Military Honors?

At a minimum, the Department of Defense requires that military honors ceremonies include the ceremonial folding and presentation of the flag as well as the sounding of taps. The honors detail must be composed of at least two uniformed service members, one of which is in the same service as the deceased. Although not required, the detail can also include a firing party, color guard, military band or military flyover. The detail can also include additional veteran volunteers who are members of veterans' service organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars or The American Legion.

What’s Included in a Military Burial?

Burial or inurnment at a military cemetery includes the following at no cost to service members or their families:

  • Opening/closing of the grave
  • Perpetual care of the gravesite
  • Government headstone/marker
  • Burial flag
  • Presidential Memorial Certificate

Some of these benefits, such as the government headstone/marker, burial flag, and Presidential Memorial Certificate may also be available for burial in private cemeteries. To find out more about burial benefits for service members buried in private cemeteries, see the information provided by the National Cemetery Administration.

How Can I Arrange for Burial at a Veterans Cemetery?

Cemeteries dedicated to military veterans can either be national or state cemeteries. At the national level, there are 172 cemeteries run either by the Army, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Park Service, or the American Battle Monuments Commission. Not every state has a national cemetery, although many states also have their own state cemeteries for veterans. To find a federal or state veterans' cemetery near you, see the helpful map provided by the VA.

Unfortunately, gravesites at national cemeteries can't be reserved while you are alive. Instead, at the time of your death, your loved ones must schedule a burial at a national cemetery with open burial spaces. To schedule a burial, they will need to have your discharge documentation and fax it to the National Cemetery Scheduling Office.

States have their own procedures for obtaining a gravesite at state veterans cemeteries. To find out more, you can contact your state’s department of veterans' affairs.

Eligibility for Military Cemeteries and Burials

Service members who are eligible for military cemeteries and burials include:

  • Current active duty members
  • Former active duty members not discharged under dishonorable conditions
  • Current members of the Selected Reserve
  • Former members of the Selected Reserve who were discharged due to a service-related disability or who served at least one period of obligated service and were not discharged under dishonorable conditions

Service members are ineligible for military cemeteries and burials if they were convicted of a capital offense or were dismissed by a court-martial or were discharged under any of the following characterizations: (1) Other Than Honorable, (2) Bad Conduct, or (3) Dishonorable.

Burial Benefits for Family Members

Spouses and dependents of service members in many cases can also be buried with their loved ones at no cost. This would include the inscription of their name and dates of birth/death on the service member's headstone as well as perpetual care for their graves.

Steps to Take

If you're eligible for a military cemetery or burial, it’s important to make your intentions clear as to the disposition of your remains. The best way to do so is to put your intentions in writing in your estate planning documents, such as a Will, Living Will or Power of Attorney for health care decisions. Having an estate plan in place will also help to avoid any disputes about your intentions after you pass away. To find out more about setting up an estate plan, see FindLaw's section on "Estate Planning."

In addition, you should also make sure that your loved ones have copies of all of your discharge papers (such as a DD214) so they can confirm your eligibility for military cemeteries or burials upon your death.

For more information about military cemeteries and burials you can also speak with an attorney who specializes in military law and benefits.

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