Veterans dedicate their lives to serving our country and protecting our freedom. We all want to provide these brave men and women who have selflessly sacrificed so much of themselves for not only their families, but the nation as a whole, a final sendoff as distinguished as they are.
There are many misconceptions about the benefits and assistance available to the families of veterans for final arrangements. This guide aims to help clear up the confusion. Whether you’re a family member in the process of planning final arrangements for a veteran loved one or an end-of-life planner who aids families in making such arrangements, you will find this guide useful.
With the cremation rate in the United States rising steadily, this guide will focus on cremation as an option, along with other traditional methods, and what benefits and assistance options are available to veterans and their families. As funeral costs continue to rise, both funeral planners serving veterans and families of veterans must arm themselves with knowledge of available services and benefits to help families manage the rising costs of making final arrangements for a loved one.
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What you’ll find in this guide:
- A Look Ahead: Funeral Service Industry Outlook
- Pre-Death Planning Information for Veterans
- Government Benefits for Cremation and Burials
- How to Access VA Benefits
- Other Financial Assistance for Cremation and Burial for Veterans and Families
- Helpful Resources on Cremation Services and Veteran Benefits for Funeral Planners and Directors
A Look Ahead: Funeral Service Industry Outlook
The following resources provide statistics and information on the outlook of the funeral service industry as a whole over the next several years.
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Cremation is on the rise. Over the next 18 years, the rate of cremation in the United States is projected to increase by nearly 30 percent, according to the 2018 Cremation and Burial Report, released by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). Already having outpaced the rate of burial for three consecutive years, the national cremation rate will reach nearly 80 percent (or 2.80 million cremations per year) by 2035, based on a variety of factors including changing consumer preference, weakening religious prohibitions and environmental concerns.
Between 1998 and 2013, cremation experienced a growth rate of 5.6 percent, and between 2003 and 2008, the growth rate (representing the increase in the number of people choosing cremation for themselves or a loved one) was 6.3 percent. Compared to the growth rate between 2008 and 2013 (9.3%), these statistics show a clear rise in the prevalence of cremation in recent years.
According to the 2019 NFDA Cremation & Burial Report, the 2019 cremation rate is 54.8% and burial rate is 39%. As the cost of traditional burial and funeral arrangements continues to rise, more families look to cremation as a more affordable alternative.
Cremation is more prevalent in some areas of the U.S., such as the Midwest; Nevada, Oregon, and Washington have cremation rates of 73 percent or higher. The South tends to have lower cremation rates, with states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, and Louisiana having cremation rates of less than 25 percent.
Cost and environmental issues are primary drivers of the increase in cremation rates. An October 2014 report from the National Funeral Directors Association notes that the rate of cremation is expected to bypass burial by the end of 2015. “The rise in consumer preference for cremation is due to a number of factors, including cost, decreased household discretionary income, environmental concerns, fewer religious prohibitions of the practice, a growing preference for simpler, and less ritualized funeral ceremonies,” the report explains. And choosing cremation doesn’t mean foregoing any type of memorial service or traditional funeral ceremony. According to the NFDA’s report, “More than 58 percent of consumers associate cremation with a memorial service; just over 15 percent of consumers associate a traditional funeral ceremony prior to cremation.”
Pre-Death Planning Information for Veterans
The decision between cremation and a traditional burial is a highly personal choice. As more and more adults are not formally affiliated with a religious denomination, cremation is becoming increasingly popular. Shifting attitudes regarding death and increased preferences for simpler, less-ritualized funeral services are also contributing factors. The following resources offer helpful information for veterans and their families for pre-death planning, as well as information on choosing the right service providers.
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Families considering cremation as an option should choose a firm carefully. This resource from the Cremation Association of North America provides a helpful checklist including important questions to ask and other steps to take when choosing a firm, such as consulting with your clergy and avoiding selecting a firm based solely on price.
Preplanning is a valuable gift that veterans can give to their families, but it’s important to have all the proper documents prepared and stored where they can easily be found following passing. Neptune Society’s Service Manager, Jessica Watts, notes, “Preplanning is always the best gift anyone can give to their family. It eliminates the overwhelming financial burden and honors the decedent’s wishes. When assisting a veteran and their family it is extremely important to have all the proper documentation. Many families struggle to locate the Military Discharge form DD214 at the time of death, so having this form in an easily located file at the veteran’s home or within the preplanning documents is a great help not only to the family but also for the funeral director who will be assisting with the VA documents and scheduling.”
The American Bar Association recommends pre-death planning as a way for veterans and other individuals to express their wishes regarding their final arrangements, as well as to remove some of the burden from their families during the grieving process. “You can make your survivors’ task easier by leaving a letter containing burial instructions and your other last wishes in a place where your family can find it,” the report explains. The American Bar Association also notes that with funeral costs on the rise, some families feel pressure to spend more than what they can afford on services to demonstrate their love for their loved one who has passed. “To protect your estate and survivors from this sort of pressure, set a limit on funeral expenses, and arrange the service while you’re alive (through a funeral home) with the help of someone you trust, like your spouse, executor, or religious leader,” the American Bar Association suggests.
Some companies offer preplanning services and may offer discounts for veterans. Ms. Watts explains, “At Neptune Society, we offer prearrangement services in which the individual or family can make cremation plans and payment in advance of the death occurring. There is also a veteran discount given to the veteran and his/her spouse at the time of prearranging. At the time of death, we assist the family with completing the VA burial benefit forms, flag application, and memorial certificate application. If the family chooses to have their loved one placed into a national cemetery, we assist with the burial scheduling process and honors request. We have, at times, referred the family to a local VA specialist who can assist them with additional information on benefits and services available to the surviving spouse.”
Government Benefits for Cremation and Burials
The following resources provide information on government benefits and assistance provided to veterans and their families for cremation and burial services. Additionally, specific information is provided on contacting the right organizations to determine eligibility and to schedule a burial if your loved one has chosen a national cemetery as his or her final resting place.
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The National Cemetery Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, provides burial benefits for veterans. According to the website, “Burial benefits available include a gravesite in any of our 131 national cemeteries with available space, opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, a Government headstone or marker, a burial flag, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family.” Note that space in a national cemetery may not be reserved in advance.
There are no VA benefits available for spouses or family members of veterans for burial, but veterans who will be buried in a private cemetery (as opposed to a national cemetery) may be eligible for a VA Burial Allowance. The VA states on its site, “VA burial allowances are flat-rate monetary benefits that are generally paid at the maximum amount authorized by law for an eligible veteran’s burial and funeral costs. A VA regulation change in 2014 simplified the program to pay eligible survivors quickly and efficiently. Eligible surviving spouses of record are paid automatically upon notification of the veteran’s death, without the need to submit a claim. VA may grant additional benefits, including the plot or interment allowance and transportation allowance, if it receives a claim for these benefits.”
In some areas, national cemeteries are not in close proximity. For this reason, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Veterans Cemetery Grants Program was established to complement the VA’s National Cemetery Administration. “The program assists states, territories and federally recognized tribal governments in providing gravesites for Veterans in those areas where VA’s national cemeteries cannot fully satisfy their burial needs. Grants may be used only for the purpose of establishing, expanding or improving Veterans cemeteries that are owned and operated by a state, federally recognized tribal government, or U.S. territory.”
Veterans must meet eligibility requirements for their families to receive burial benefits for their final expenses, and amounts vary based on circumstances. For a service-related death, “VA will pay up to $2,000 toward burial expenses for deaths on or after September 11, 2001, or up to $1,500 for deaths prior to September 11, 2001. If the veteran is buried in a VA national cemetery, some or all of the cost of transporting the deceased may be reimbursed.” For non-service-related deaths, “VA will pay up to $700 toward burial and funeral expenses for deaths on or after October 1, 2011 (if hospitalized by VA at time of death), or $300 toward burial and funeral expenses (if not hospitalized by VA at time of death), and a $700 plot-interment allowance (if not buried in a national cemetery). For deaths on or after December 1, 2001, but before October 1, 2011, VA will pay up to $300 toward burial and funeral expenses and a $300 plot-interment allowance. For deaths on or after April 1, 1988 but before October 1, 2011, VA will pay $300 toward burial and funeral expenses (for Veterans hospitalized by VA at the time of death).”
The spouse and dependents of an eligible veteran are entitled to burial and a marker in a national cemetery, even if the veteran is not buried there. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, “A spouse who remarries a non-veteran may claim burial rights from the prior marriage. Spouses receiving military pay and who die in a military medical facility are eligible for military transport to the nearest national cemetery or no farther than the last permanent residence. Adult children of veterans are entitled to burial benefits only if disabled and dependent.”
Military funeral honors are available upon request for eligible veterans’ services. According to the VA’s website, “Upon request, DoD [the Department of Defense] will provide military funeral honors consisting of folding and the presentation of the United States flag and the playing of ‘Taps.’ A funeral honors detail consists of two or more uniformed members of the armed forces, with at least one member from the deceased’s branch of service.” Families should inform the funeral director or planner if they wish to request full military honors. Additionally, “VA can help arrange honors for burials at VA national cemeteries. Veteran’s service organizations or volunteer groups may help provide honors.”
How to Access VA Benefits
The following resources provide information and step-by-step guides on how to obtain the various burial and other benefits available to families of veterans for final arrangements.
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There are 141 national cemeteries in 40 states (and Puerto Rico), in addition to 33 soldiers’ lots and monument sites. There is not a VA national cemetery in every state. This resource offers a helpful search function to locate national and state cemeteries. Please note that for State Veterans Cemeteries, the VA cannot provide information on eligibility or answer other questions; for these cemeteries, you should contact the cemetery directly.
The National Cemetery Scheduling Office is responsible for determining eligibility and scheduling burials in the national cemeteries. It notes, “A determination of eligibility is made in response to a request for burial in a VA national cemetery. To schedule a burial, fax all discharge documentation to 1-866-900-6417 and follow-up with a phone call to 1-800-535-1117.”
To apply for VA Burial Allowance, surviving family members must submit VA form 21-530. This resource provides detailed information on determining eligibility, how to obtain a copy of your loved one’s military discharge documents if they are not located with the veteran’s other documents, and more.
If you do not have the proper eligibility documentation, someone from the Scheduling Office will assist you with verification. This resource provides step-by-step instructions for scheduling a burial at any of the 141 national cemeteries with available space.
Eligible veterans may receive a government headstone or marker for the unmarked grave of any deceased eligible veteran, at no charge to the family. Veterans who are eligible to receive a marker may use this benefit regardless of the date of death, and these markers may be used in any cemetery around the world.
The VA provides a United States flag at no cost for draping on a casket or accompanying an urn for a deceased veteran. This resource offers information on the symbolism of the flag being given as a way to honor the veteran’s service to the USA, as well as information on how to obtain a flag. To receive one, surviving family members must submit VA Form 27-2008, Application for United States Flag for Burial Purposes.
Veterans are also eligible to receive a Presidential Memorial Certificate. To receive a certificate, surviving family members must submit VA Form 40-0247 Application for Presidential Memorial Certificate. This resource also provides information on how to apply for a PMC using the agency’s toll-free fax line.
Other Financial Assistance for Cremation and Burial for Veterans and Families
The following resources provide useful information on other ways to obtain financial assistance to help offset the costs of a veteran loved one’s final expenses.
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An individual receiving Social Security is eligible for a lump sum death payment of $255. These funds are provided to the surviving spouse or child under the age of 18. This resource, along with SSA.gov, provide more information on eligibility and how to apply.
Families are generally responsible for spending within their budgets for a loved one’s funeral. This is why preplanning is so important, particularly for veterans. By determining your eligibility for various benefits, you gain a clearer picture of how much a family should spend on final arrangements for a loved one.
Insurance benefits are sometimes used to offset the costs of final expenses. This resource discusses the insurance death benefit and how to assign a funeral home or director a portion or all of the proceeds, prepayment plans, and other information to help you understand the various options for covering the costs of a funeral and interment.
Helpful Resources on Cremation Services and Veteran Benefits for Funeral Planners and Directors
As cremation becomes an increasingly popular choice, funeral directors and planners are able to better serve their clients by becoming knowledgeable about cremation services and incorporating cremation as an option for families. The following resources provide helpful information, tools, and organizations for pre-death planners, funeral directors, and similar professionals who wish to help families who choose cremation provide a meaningful service worthy of their veteran loved ones.
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The National Funeral Directors Association offers educational resources and tools for funeral directors for incorporating cremation as a choice for their clients. Home study courses, information for consumers, sample legal documents and forms, and more are available from the NFDA.
The Cremation Association of North America is an excellent resource for pre-death planners and funeral directors. Membership in this organization provides access to education, publications, networking opportunities, and public awareness.
The National Cemetery Administration offers a multitude of resources for funeral directors, pre-death planners, and similar professionals, including links to information on determining eligibility for VA Burial Allowance, how to make arrangements for a national cemetery interment or committal service, arrange for burial flags, and other helpful information to help you better serve your veteran clients.
Whether you’re a surviving family member of a veteran or a pre-death planning professional who wants to better service clients with helpful information on the benefits available for veterans and their families, the resources in this guide provide everything you need to know to give your loved one or your clients proper final arrangements worthy of their service to our country.