By: Kristen Parker
The image is iconic: A uniformed officer solemnly places a folded American flag in the arms of a grieving family member while a military firing party renders final honors.
Unfortunately, however, sometimes our nation’s heroes die with no known next-of-kin and insufficient resources. While VA’s goal is to help Veterans and their loved ones before they die or become indigent, sometimes Veterans outlive both their families and their financial means.
Sometimes too, Veterans never seek the help they earned from the VA, so we don’t know they are out there. As hard as the VA works to avoid this, and as difficult as it is to accept, at least now we can help ensure that Veterans who die unclaimed are given the dignified burials they deserve.
Several resources are now available to ensure Veterans receive honorable burials. As a part of the “Dignified Burial and Other Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2012,” VA has new monetary benefits to assist with the burial of unclaimed Veterans. VA will continue to work with Veteran service groups, funeral industry partners, public administrators and other concerned citizens to ensure these unclaimed Veterans are cared for and treated honorably.
The person or entity handling burial arrangements for an unclaimed Veteran can work with VA to schedule the burial and get reimbursement for the associated expenses. The purchase of a casket or urn, the cost of transportation to a national cemetery for burial, and a burial allowance are reimbursable in some cases for unclaimed Veterans.
The first step in ensuring a dignified burial for an Unclaimed Veteran is to establish the Veteran’s service record and burial eligibility. Once authorities identify the unclaimed person and suspect his or her Veteran status, the VA can help locate the deceased’s service record. The VA can help locate the deceased’s service records through the VA’s National Cemetery Scheduling Office (1-800-535-1117). Officials at the office will also help identify the closest VA national cemetery and schedule a burial date.
When the unclaimed Veteran is buried or inurned in a VA national cemetery, the person or entity handling the arrangements (the applicant) can be reimbursed for the purchase of the casket or urn used, provided it meets the minimum standards outlined in the Unclaimed Veteran Remains – Casket or Urn Reimbursement Program Fact Sheet.
Applicants can also request reimbursement for the transportation of the unclaimed Veteran to the closest, open VA national cemetery and request a burial allowance to help with additional costs. Information on how to apply for those benefits can be found in the Unclaimed Remains Burial Resources Fact Sheet, which includes links to the forms needed for processing, and lists options available if the unclaimed Veteran is not buried in a VA national cemetery.
The monetary burial benefits for unclaimed Veterans depend upon the location of burial, with burial in a VA national cemetery being the priority. These monetary burial benefits are facilitated by VA’s National Cemetery Administration (NCA), which operates its 131 National Cemeteries, and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), which facilitates compensation, pension, insurance and loan programs for Veterans. The recent legislation also removes the VA pension and compensation prerequisite for the burial allowance provided by VBA when handling unclaimed Veterans.
If an unclaimed Veteran passes away while under the care of the Veterans Health Administration, the closest VA healthcare facility will arrange for proper burial of the Veteran. Their procedures are defined in VHA Handbook 1601B.04, Decedent Affairs, Section 8, “Unclaimed Remains.”
While the benefits discussed here apply specifically to unclaimed Veterans, almost all Veterans with an other than dishonorable discharge, as well as their spouses and minor, dependent children, are eligible for VA memorial benefits. These benefits include burial in a VA national, state or tribal Veterans’ cemetery; a headstone, marker or medallion; a U.S. Burial Flag; and a Presidential Memorial Certificate. Some Veterans are also eligible for Burial and Plot-Interment Allowances.
VA operates 131 national cemeteries, one national Veterans burial ground and 33 soldiers’ lots and monument sites in 40 states and Puerto Rico. VA also provides funding to establish, expand, improve and maintain 95 Veterans cemeteries in 45 states and territories including tribal trust lands, Guam and Saipan. For Veterans not buried in a VA national cemetery, VA provides headstones, markers or medallions to commemorate their service.
Author – Kristen Parker – joined VA in June 2013 as a senior public affairs specialist for the National Cemetery Administration. She is originally from Pittsburgh and earned a degree in Public Communications from American University in Washington. Before coming to VA, Kristen spent the first 10 years of her professional career working on media and community relations projects for the U.S. Army at the headquarters, major command and installation levels. She enjoys coaching and taking CrossFit classes in her free time, and “I love being able to do good things for good people through my work with the VA.”