The 115th Congress has begun in earnest with a flurry of activity, and your NFDA Advocacy staff are on the Hill working for introduction of legislation of importance to funeral service. Now that the dust has settled after the Presidential election and the last minute frenzy of activity in the 114th Congress, it’s time to review some of the good things that happened regarding veterans' funeral and burial issues that impact funeral service.
On December 14, 2016 President signed the Charles Duncan Buried with Honor Act of 2016 into law [Public Law No: 114-273]. This bill authorizes the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), if it is unable to identify a deceased veteran's next of kin and if it determines that sufficient resources for the furnishing of a casket or urn for the burial of such veteran are not otherwise available, to furnish a casket or urn for the burial of such a veteran in a national cemetery (current law) or in a veterans cemetery of a state or tribal organization for which the VA has provided a grant for the establishment, expansion, and improvement of veterans' cemeteries.
On December 16, President Obama signed the Jeff Miller and Richard Blumenthal Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2016 into law [Public Law No: 114-315]. This bill directs the VA to complete a study on matters relating to the interring of unclaimed remains of veterans in national cemeteries under the control of the National Cemetery Administration; the Secretary of the VA is required to submit a report on this study to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. The study will look at:
- Determining the scope of issues relating to unclaimed remains of veterans, including an estimate of the number of unclaimed remains of veterans; in estimating the number of unclaimed remains of veterans, the Secretary may review entities, such as funeral homes and coroner offices, that possess unclaimed veterans remains.
- Assessing the effectiveness of VA procedures for working with persons or entities having custody of unclaimed remains to facilitate interment of unclaimed remains of veterans in national cemeteries under the control of the National Cemetery Administration
- Assessing state and local laws that affect the ability of the Secretary to inter unclaimed remains of veterans in national cemeteries under the control of the National Cemetery Administration
- Developing recommendations for such legislative or administrative action as the Secretary considers appropriate.
In addition, the Secretary of the VA will conduct a study on the feasibility and need for providing increased interments in veterans’ cemeteries on Saturdays and Sundays to help surviving family members properly honor the deceased. The study shall include the following:
- The number of requests made for interments in veterans' cemeteries on a Saturday or a Sunday since January 1, 2007; the number of requests that were granted
- An estimate of the number of families that, since January 1, 2007, would have selected a weekend interment if such an interment would have been offered
- A review of the practices relating to weekend interments among non-veterans' cemeteries, including private and municipal cemeteries
- A comparison of the costs to veterans' cemeteries with respect to providing regular interments only during weekdays and such costs for providing regular interments during the weekdays and at least 1 weekend day.
In carrying out the study the Secretary shall consult with the following: veterans who are eligible to be interred in a veterans' cemetery; family members of a deceased individual interred in a veterans' cemetery; veterans service organizations; associations representing cemetery and funeral home professionals; the heads of agencies of state governments relating to veterans affairs; the directors of the veterans' cemeteries; and any other person the Secretary determines appropriate.
The same bill also expands veteran eligibility for headstones, markers, and medallions. This bill states the Secretary may furnish, upon request, a medallion, or other device of a design determined by the Secretary to signify the deceased individual’s status as a veteran, be attached to a headstone or marker furnished at private expense.
For individuals who served in the armed forces on or after April 6, 1917, and are eligible for a headstone or marker, the Secretary shall furnish, upon request, a headstone or marker or a medallion that signifies the deceased’s status as a medal of honor recipient. If the Secretary previously furnished a headstone, marker, or medallion that does not signify the deceased’s status as a medal of honor recipient, the Secretary shall, upon request, replace the headstone, marker, or medallion with one that signifies their status as a medal of honor recipient.
The law also expands the Presidential Memorial Certificate Program by amending by striking “veterans,” and inserting the following: “persons eligible for burial in a national cemetery by reason. This change shall apply with respect to the death of a person eligible for burial in a national cemetery by reason of paragraph (1), (2), (3), or (7) of section 2402(a) of title 38, United States Code.”
As always, NFDA will actively monitor legislation in Congress that may impact funeral service, and will ensure your voice is heard on Capitol Hill. NFDA worked hard to pass H.R. 1911, the Rep. Duncan Hunter’s bill to improve veteran funeral and burial benefits. This legislation was not included in the final package that passed Congress. NFDA staff are already working with Congress to pass this legislation in the new Congress at the earliest legislative opportunity. We are also working with the new Trump administration to make improvements to veterans funeral and burial benefits.