By Sgt. Maj. Cecil EdwardsApril 30, 2009
Dying-it is the last thing on earth we want to do, and it is usually the last thing we are prepared for. This is evidenced in part by the fact that more than half of Americans do not have a written will. In the military, the Judge Advocate General's Corps will readily assist servicemembers to draw one up, and servicemembers are asked if they have a written will prior to deployment.
However, because it is not a requirement, many do not take advantage of this free service. That may be because wills have to do with dying, and dying is not a topic with which we are comfortable. Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Denial of Death," suggests that death is the primary concern of the living, but that we cope with it by denying it will ever happen to us.
How do you like that introduction' I start out talking about death, and follow that with an assertion that it is something that we do not like to talk about. You may already be feeling squeamish, but you have no need for alarm. That is because the topic, rather than being dismal and macabre, is unalarmingly practical. Someday you will die, and something will be done with your remains. Have you considered the option of being interred in a military cemetery'
National cemeteries were introduced at the beginning of the Civil War, when in July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln obtained authorization through legislation enacted by Congress, to purchase "cemetery grounds for Soldiers who shall have died in the service of the country."
In that first year alone, 14 national cemeteries were established. Today there are more than 10 times that number: 125 are located in 39 states and Puerto Rico (not to mention 33 Soldier's lots and monument sites), and maintained by a federal government agency known as the National Cemetery Administration (www.cem.va.gov/cem/cems/listcem.asp#DE); the Department of the Interior's National Park Service maintains an additional 14; and the Department of the Army maintains two more, to include Arlington National Cemetery. This does not include the almost 90 state-run veterans cemeteries that can be found in 42 states and two territories, 71 of which are funded by the Veterans Administration (www.cem.va.gov/cem/scg/lsvc.asp); and, new military cemeteries are being established on an ongoing basis. As for the number of Americans that have been so interred, to include veterans from as early as the Revolutionary War to our present-day conflicts, the total is estimated to be more than 3 million.
To be buried in a national cemetery-and this criteria would apply to most state veteran cemeteries, particularly those that are funded by the VA (i.e., they generally must agree to follow the same rules, guidelines and standards as the national cemeteries, though they may also have an additional residency requirement), the individual must be a member of the armed forces who dies while on active duty.
A veteran who fulfilled minimum active-duty requirements and, "was discharged under conditions other than dishonorable," also qualifies. Military service during a war or a conflict is not a requirement. Reservists and National Guard members qualify if they were drawing retirement pay at the time of death, or "would have been entitled, but for being under the age of 60." More detailed information regarding eligibility requirements can be found by visiting: www.cem.va.gov/cem/bbene/eligible.asp.
Another excellent resource is "The Military Advantage: A Comprehensive Guide to Your Military and Veterans Benefits," by C.P. Michel. People may be surprised to know that spouses and dependents are also eligible to be interred with the servicemember at no charge, prior to or after the servicemember's death; state veteran cemeteries, however, may charge $150 to $500 per dependent.
In addition to eligibility to be buried in a national or state veteran cemetery, the servicemember is also entitled to, at no cost: burial with military honors (i.e., the DOD is mandated by law to provide, per request of the family, a minimum of a flag, a two-person detail to present it, and the playing of Taps); the opening and closing of the grave; perpetual care of the gravesite; a government headstone or marker (the servicemember's information goes on one side, and the information of the spouse or dependent(s) interred in the same grave is written on the reverse side); a burial flag; and a Presidential Memorial Certificate.
Even if the veteran is buried in a private cemetery, a standard headstone or marker can be obtained for free by completing VA Form 40-1330 and mailing it to the VA (see www.military.com/forms). For a description of what can be inscribed onto headstones and markers, see www.cem.va.gov/cem/hm_hm.asp.
One advantage has to do with expense. When interred in a military cemetery, the gravesite, the grave marker and their perpetual care and maintenance, are provided all at no cost to the family. Given that the casket, flowers, transportation and funeral service can range from $5,000 to $11,000 (these funeral expenses are not covered by the VA), the cost for a funeral and burial can be quite high. Another advantage has to do with security.
In military cemeteries, it is often much tighter. It is not unusual for them to be equipped with electronic surveillance, as well as guards that open and close the gates. In addition, it is a federal offence to deface a military cemetery headstone, or to carry out any other kind of destructive activity or vandalism on the property, and a federal investigation is automatically initiated if it happens. Conviction for such a crime carries a one-year mandatory sentence. A third advantage is that of exclusivity. One cannot simply buy his or her way in. Burial in a military cemetery is a benefit that is earned.
Additionally, the aesthetics of the cemetery are well maintained. National cemeteries receive very high marks regarding upkeep, according to annual surveys distributed to family members of the deceased. Statistics show that national cemeteries consistently obtain an "A" rating, which is unheard of in the non-military sector.
Furthermore, if the cemetery is expanded, the aesthetics are not compromised, due in part to the federal government, which pays for those additions and ensures that guidelines are followed and maintained. Also, "keeping up with the Joneses"-competition by families to have the largest headstone, for example, does not occur. It is "dress-right-dress," because the overall effect of the appearance and placement of the headstones is as meaningful as the individual gravesite.
A military cemetery is a national shrine that memorializes veterans perpetually. Long after the veteran and his or her loved ones have passed on, the U.S. government ensures that the cemetery is maintained, and that the veteran is never forgotten.
Another advantage is that it is a reminder to citizens of our nation of the sacrifices that have been made for their freedoms. As such, it becomes a focal point by which Americans can show their patriotism and appreciation, particularly during Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day celebrations.
Now that you have read this information, what will you do with it' Your choice may be to do nothing, intentionally or unintentionally, since procrastination is still choosing to do nothing. At a minimum, let a trusted loved one know your wishes. Surveys carried out by the National Cemetery Administration consistently show that the most common reason a family inters their veteran loved one in a military cemetery is "to honor his or her wishes." Visit http://www.cem.va.gov/cem/cems_nmc.asp for information and view photos of particular military cemeteries that may interest you.
You may also want to personally visit some national or state veteran cemeteries in your area, and even meet with the cemetery director. He or she can familiarize you and your family with all aspects of the interment. Many state veteran cemeteries will file and maintain your documentation, such as your DD 214, that proves your burial eligibility.
America's national and state veteran cemeteries are a military benefit that provide not only a final resting place for our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, but a lasting memorial and testament to their service. Don't keep this information to yourself. Share it with those who are serving, as well as with those who have served and their families. They, too, will be forever grateful. vA-a,!A
Sergeant Maj. Cecil Edwards is training to be a research manager in Human Terrain Systems at the Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.