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What Two Funerals for One Elderly Woman Can Teach Funeral Directors

By Planning Tools

By Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt has long talked about the “whys” of funeral rituals, why they are important to families. His latest book addresses the “hows,” how funeral directors need to change their approach to serving families in today’s culture where ritual has been devalued.

What two funerals for one elderly woman can teach funeral directors

In my latest book, “A Tale of Two Funerals,” I tell a story in which, due to a Twilight Zonesque spacetime anomaly, two funerals are held simultaneously for the same elderly woman, Carol Williams. One funeral is arranged by funeral director Sam Standard, and the other by funeral director Grace Gatekeeper.

The two funeral directors have different approaches, which in turn result in two very different ceremonies. The question the book poses is: Which funeral is more helpful to family and friends, and why? I thought it might be helpful to talk about the book—why I wrote it, why I took this approach and what I hope people learn from it—in a question-and-answer format.

You’ve been an advocate for meaningful funerals for a long time. Why?

I discovered long ago that “when words are inadequate, have a ceremony.” I trained for 13 years as a talk therapist, and I discovered early on in my career that the funeral ceremony is an essential rite of initiation to get people off to a good start following the death of someone in their life.

But more and more, people today lack an understanding of the value of funerals. I feel I have a responsibility as a grief counselor and death educator to attempt to counter this trend toward deritualization. It’s bad for families, it’s bad for funeral service and it’s bad for our society as a whole. In my writing and teaching, I’ve attempted to articulate why we’ve had funerals since the beginning of time. The pyramid graphic shows the main purposes of funerals. I call it my hierarchy of the “why” of funerals. The essential idea is that personalized, full funerals give families the chance to begin working on healing, and the “whys” of the funeral are what helps put them on the path to healing.

Reality, for example, is the foundation of the pyramid. Funerals help families acknowledge the reality of the death. Recall is the next layer, because funerals help families actively remember and tell stories about the person who died. Next we come to support. Funerals are all about people gathering to support one another in their grief. Expression means embracing and outwardly expressing the pain of the loss, and meaning is all about the thinking through that goes on at funerals of the meaning of the life and death of the person who died.

Finally, we come to transcendence. Ultimately, good funerals help us take a step toward transcending our grief and continuing on with a life of purpose and love. When families don’t have a meaningful funeral, they often struggle much more than they otherwise would. I’m honored that many organizations now use the pyramid and other visual tools I’ve created to help families and their communities better understand why we have funerals. I hope to continue to be an advocate for meaningful funerals, and writing “A Tale of Two Funerals” is one way to achieve that goal.

You’ve written other books on the subject. Why did you decide to try this creative storytelling approach?

I realized it’s one thing to talk in the abstract about what funeral directors should do, but it’s another thing to show it. The story in “A Tale of Two Funerals” shows, moment-by moment, step-by-step, how the two different funeral directors work with the family. The reader gets to be a fly on a wall throughout all the steps, from the transfer all the way through to aftercare.

In the story, one of the funeral directors, Grace Gatekeeper, stops now and then to explain to the family why they might consider including a certain element or piece of ritual. Is this important?

Educating families about the “why” of the funeral is the crux of the matter. For a number of reasons, today’s families are often inexperienced with death and funeral planning. They don’t understand why many of the elements of ritual that funeral service takes for granted are included. Not understanding the value of many of the elements, they often subvert or eliminate them. The more they eliminate, the less likely they are to achieve a “sweet spot” of experience.

So funeral directors must educate families. Why have a visitation, for example? What functions does the visitation serve? If you look back at the hierarchy of the “why” noted above, you’ll see that the visitation helps mourners with many of them. Spending time with the body is one significant way in which families really begin to acknowledge the reality of the death. Memories start coming up, and people share those with one another. They also hug, talk to and support each other.

Expressing the pain of the loss is natural at the visitation as well, as is talking about the meaning of the life and death of the person who died. It’s essential to educate families about all of the reasons why we have visitations. When funeral directors connect everything they do with information, education and choices, they have the power to help families in profound ways—ways that will impact their lives for decades to come.

Do you think funeral directors know why we’ve traditionally used the various elements of funerals, such as music or the committal?

I think funeral directors understand that most of the elements are helpful, but I don’t think they’ve ever been asked to articulate why. Why is it good to have a personalized eulogy, for example? To help families, you’ve got to be able to explain this and many other “whys” to them as you help them plan.

“A Tale of Two Funerals” gives many examples of how Grace Gatekeeper teaches the Wilson family about the “whys.” I also wanted to show readers how using the many elements of the funeral together is what creates what I call the “tapestry” of experience for the family. If a basic, generic funeral is a serviceable “throw rug,” then a comprehensive, personalized funeral rich in elements and the participation of people who cared about the person who died is a beautiful tapestry. That’s the goal.

You present a fair and balanced view of funeral service in this book. Both funeral directors are good people who are good at their jobs. Why didn’t you make one of them the “bad funeral director?”

I’m honored to be invited to speak at many funeral service conferences. I also count many funeral directors among my friends. In my experience, funeral directors are rarely “bad” at their jobs. On the contrary, they’re kind, and they’re good at getting families through the experience quickly and efficiently. They’re skilled at making things as easy as possible for families.

The trouble is, some funeral directors whom I’ve observed (and I could say this about funeral service in general) tend to confuse efficiency with effectiveness. I would suggest that fast and efficient are not better. When it comes to planning and carrying out a truly meaningful funeral, slow and thoughtful are much more effective. I believe part of my role as a funeral service educator is to encourage funeral directors to slow down and try not to confuse efficiency with effectiveness.

We have good funeral directors. What we as a culture now need, because of the deritualization trend I mentioned earlier, are great funeral directors. We’ve got to train both veteran and rookie funeral directors in how to anchor everything they do in the “whys” of the funeral. For funeral directors to be able to teach the purposes of the elements of funerals, they have to study the body of knowledge in ways they have not done before. My goal in the book is to hold the mirror up to funeral directors and ask: Are you educating every step of the way, from the moment you’re receiving the call all the way through to aftercare?

Back in the normative days of funeral service, when families knew what they wanted, tended to have multi-day funerals and understood the importance of ritual, you could get away with not educating. But now, in the integrative phase of funeral service, we need funeral directors to teach families about everything. Because the choice today is to educate people or run the risk of going out of business.

How do you envision “A Tale of Two Funerals” being used?

My hope is that the book will be an excellent training or in-service tool for funeral homes. It’s concise, and the story format makes it engaging to read. I’ve included discussion questions at the end of each chapter, so funeral directors can reflect on what they’ve read and come to a meeting prepared to talk about their responses.

Of course, it also makes a refreshing textbook for mortuary schools. Funeral directors-in-training would really benefit from seeing their roles as educators from the get-go. I also enjoy hosting an annual training for funeral directors every June in Colorado, so I will use this book as one of the resources for that course as well.

What’s the one thing you hope funeral directors take away from “A Tale of Two Funerals?”

That it’s doable and rewarding to create exceptional funerals. All it takes is a slight shift in focus and a commitment to doing what’s really and truly best (not necessarily easiest) for the families you are honored to serve.

Let’s all remember: Good funerals are no longer sufficient. Based on the trend away from ceremony when death occurs, funeral service’s commitment must be great funerals, funerals that help people see the value in every aspect of the experience. The goal should be for every funeral to conclude with families and guests saying, “Now that was a great funeral!”

About the Author:

Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a noted author, educator, grief counselor. Dr. Wolfelt believes that meaningful funeral experiences help families and friends support one another, embrace their feelings, and embark on the journey to healing and transcendence. Recipient of the Association of Death Education and Counseling’s Death Educator Award, Dr. Wolfelt presents workshops across the world to grieving families, funeral home staffs, and other caregivers. He also teaches training courses for bereavement caregivers at the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he serves as Director. Dr. Wolfelt is on the faculty of the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. He is also the author of many bestselling books, including Understanding Your Grief, The Mourner’s Book of Hope, Creating Meaningful Funeral Ceremonies, and The Paradoxes of Grief: Healing Your Grief With Three Forgotten Truths, upon which this series is based. For more information, visit www.centerforloss.com

Printed by permission of Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, all rights reserved.

How to Select a Casket

By Explore Options, Planning Tools

If you decide on a traditional burial for you or your loved one, the next important decision that you will need to make is determining the type of casket. Before purchasing, do some research on various types of caskets and the costs associated with them. Below is a basic outline regarding the process of selecting and purchasing a casket.

Casket or Coffin?

Before examining the different caskets available, we need to make sure that we know exactly what we are referring to when we use the term. While the word casket is often used interchangeably with coffin, there is an important difference between the two terms: a coffin is hexagonal or octagonal, while the casket is rectangular. Also, a casket often contains a split lid for the purpose of viewing the body, while a coffin does not. The two pictures above illustrate these differences. Caskets are more popular in the U.S., while coffins have a long tradition of popularity in the U.K.

Materials

Caskets are generally made of wood or metal. The following are materials commonly used in their construction.

Wood

  • High-cost materials: Mahogany, Walnut, and Cherry
  • Medium-cost materials: Oak, Birch, and Maple
  • Low-cost materials: Pine, Poplar, and Willow

Metal

  • Standard Steel: Least expensive type of metal casket available. Available in 20-gauge, 18-gauge, and 16-gauge. The term “gauge” refers to the thickness of the metal. The lower the gauge, the thicker the material.
  • Stainless Steel: More durable than standard steel and a little more expensive. Available in the same gauges as standard steel.
  • Copper and Bronze: Have rust-resistant properties that steel lacks. While they do not technically rust, they will eventually oxidize and break down in a manner similar to rusting. Durable, high quality metals, but far more expensive than steel. Unlike steel caskets, they are measured by weight instead of gauge.

Eco-Friendly

If you want to go green, environmentally-friendly options are also available. Wicker caskets made from bamboo, willow, or sea grass are popular choices. You can also choose a cardboard casket, which is easy to decorate with a digitally-printed design. Burial shrouds made of wool, cotton, linen, and silk are also worth looking into.  If you want to be environmentally conscious but desire a traditional wooden coffin, consider a coffin made from sustainably-sourced wood.

Alternative Containers, Cremation Caskets, and Rental Caskets

If you opt for cremation, you will probably still want to decide on a casket or container to use. A cremation casket is a wooden casket that may be cremated with the body after the service. An alternative container, generally made of wood, cardboard, or fiberboard, is a cheaper option. If you want a ceremonial casket at the funeral, most funeral homes offer a rental casket for the service, which isn’t as weird as it sounds. Rental caskets are crafted to include an insert for the cremation container, so the cremation casket is placed inside the ceremonial casket for the service. After the service, the cremation container is removed for cremation, offering the best of both worlds.

Gasketed and Non-Gasketed

You may have heard people refer to certain metal caskets as “gasketed.” A gasketed casket, also known as a protective casket, is sealed with a rubber gasket to keep the elements from entering the casket. While this seal will protect the casket for a long time, it will not preserve it indefinitely. It simply delays the natural process of decomposition.

Purchasing the Casket

You may want to visit your local funeral home to browse the selection in person. If you do, know that your funeral director is required by law to show you a list of the caskets available before showing you the caskets. Make sure to ask to see a variety of caskets in different price ranges. Some customers buy the first caskets they see and don’t review all the options. Don’t rush through the process of buying the casket. Get the full picture, explore all of the available options, and ask your funeral director if you have any questions. Remember that the funeral director is there to help, and his or her experience can be very useful.

Burial Vault or Grave Liners

Grave liners and burial vaults are outer burial containers that play an important structural role in maintaining the level of the ground in a cemetery. Over time, caskets deteriorate, weighed down by six feet of earth and the heavy machinery used to dig graves. When this happens, the ground sinks, leaving an uneven landscape in the cemetery. To avoid this, caskets are usually placed in solid structures that can bear the weight of the earth, helping to maintain the structure of the cemetery grounds. The grave liner or burial vault holds the casket solely for this purpose. Though not required by law, most cemeteries require the use of a burial vault or grave liner. However, green cemeteries and nature preserves generally do not. Do some research into the cemetery that you are considering if you do not wish to have an outer burial container.

Research

Caskets are one of the more expensive elements of the funeral and burial process. It’s important to make sure that you know what you want before purchasing. Do some research and visit your local funeral home to ask questions before buying. Take advantage of all the resources at your disposal so that you can make an informed choice that is fitting for the burial you want for yourself or a loved one.

Grief and Loss in the Digital Age

By Grief/Loss, Planning Tools, Technology and Grief

Is There Room for Technology in the Funeral Profession?

People often associate funeral homes with tradition, order, and family values. When they think of technology, they think innovation, variety, and convenience. These two sets of positive characteristics aren’t mutually exclusive. The reliability of the old fashioned, personable, customer service-oriented funeral home and the ease of technology can work in tandem to create a valuable service. Taking the best of the classical funeral experience and fusing it with the latest technological innovations can help us craft meaningful ceremonies for our loved ones.

Technology Used During the Service

In the 21st century, the funeral service has changed drastically. Whereas photographs of the deceased used to be displayed near the casket, they are now able to be projected on slideshows. Video and music capabilities have increased the level of personalization in the average funeral. Clips of the deceased or favorite songs are played to capture the spirit of a loved one. These developments illustrate technology’s potential to enrich a ceremony and aid in the grieving process.

Broadcasting a Funeral Service Online

Another innovation is the ability to stream a funeral service online. While this may not be the ideal way for loved ones to participate in the funeral (the communal aspect that is achieved when a group of people gather in a room should not be underestimated), it can be useful in some circumstances because it allows people in distant places to connect. For example, if a family member or friend is overseas and unable to attend the service, this kind of broadcast could be of great benefit.

Websites

Many funeral homes have now made the leap into cyberspace, building websites and online resources to meet the needs of the people they serve. These websites often contain obituaries, grief resources, aftercare information, and online forms for prearranging funerals. Sometimes, you are able to use the funeral home website to send flowers to those who are grieving. Visit your local funeral home’s website to see what services they offer and what resources they provide.

Social Media

Social media sites have changed the game by creating a public online platform on which people can honor the life of a loved one and pay their respects. Families might access the loved one’s account to post a final, meaningful tribute, and people can comment to show how the loved one touched them. In this way, social media can function as a giant support network, in which hundreds or even thousands of people receive the news of a loved one’s passing. Social media is a great additional step that you can take to connect with people that you care about during a time of loss.

Digital Funeral Planning

In addition to providing more information and buying options, technology can play an important role in funeral arrangements by facilitating more efficient communication with funeral directors. Passare, a new company that is designed to make funeral arranging easier on both the funeral director and the client, offers an online space that allows you to connect with your funeral director at any time and any place. All that you need is access to an electronic device. The online Collaboration Center is easily accessible and gives you a voice in the planning process.

Innovation

Exciting advances are regularly being made in the technological world. These advancements aren’t working to make funeral homes obsolete. Rather, they provide funeral directors with tools to better serve their clients. Those who are planning for a service can use the web as a valuable resource to become better informed and to choose the options that suit their personal needs. And of course, technology plays a role in the funeral service itself, which uses audio and video capabilities to enhance the service and capture the unique characteristics of the loved one. These innovations have the potential to positively shape the grieving process and help us to honor the lives of our loved ones.

Sorting Through a Loved One’s Possessions

By AfterCare, Planning Tools

If you have lost a loved one, you may find yourself dreading the day when you have to dispose of your loved one’s favorite shirt or the books on the shelf that he or she would read and re-read until the pages wore down. Possessions are tied to events, and when you come across an item that was a part of a loved one’s identity, you find yourself in a lose-lose situation: it hurts to keep it and it hurts to part with it.

Lighten the Burden

But there are ways to make the cleaning process more bearable. Sorting through a lost loved one’s belongings is never easy, but by developing a strategy, you can make it much more tolerable. Here are some tips that might provide you with some peace as you begin to face this daunting task:

1. Develop a Game Plan

Give yourself some structure. Diving in without a full understanding of the scope of the project will probably leave you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Make a list of what needs to be done and organize your goals. Separate the items that you need to clean into groups, and move from group to group. You might want to designate each room as a separate job, and have an individual strategy for each room.

2. Set Small Goals

After the loss of a loved one, cleaning can be physically and emotionally draining. For this reason, it’s important to pace yourself. Completing any task, big or small, provides you with a sense of satisfaction, so break one task into five and have five moments of victory! Be sure to take plenty of breaks between tasks. Develop a reward system for yourself. Maybe you’ll decide to grab a coffee after finishing a certain closet, or take a TV break after finishing a room.

3. Sort as You Go

You’ll cut down on a lot of excess time and energy if you sort the items into piles as you go. You may want to designate areas or boxes labeled “Keep,” “Donate,” “Give to a family member,” and “Throw away.” Label your boxes or bags and place things in the appropriate areas. Sorting items on the front end will help you decide on a clear goal for each item you come across and will make the project more manageable.

4. Set a Quantity Limit

As you look over all of your loved one’s possessions, you are probably going to be tempted to keep too much. So, in addition to setting goals for the completion of your project, set goals for your ability to let go. There is no way you can keep everything. The best way to decide what to keep is to write a short list of items ahead of time that you can’t imagine parting with and set specific limitations for each type of item you will keep.

5. Assess Each Item for Future Worth

Which items are the most meaningful? When you first begin to look at the loved one’s possessions, everything seems important. And when you decide which items are most important, how do you know if keeping it is what the loved one would really want? The process of determining what to keep and what to part with can be extremely difficult. There are no fixed criteria to help you decide to hold on to item A and let go of item B. It’s ultimately up to you to decide. Remember the loved one’s connection to the possession and try to decide if there is any real value in keeping the object. If not, consider donating it.

6. Invite Friends to Help

You might want to invite close friends to help out. It’s important to surround yourself with people that can provide emotional support. If you decide that this is a personal project that you’d rather complete on your own, that’s fine too, but you may want to consider planning time to be with others during breaks, or right before or after working. Falling back on a support network can be extremely helpful when facing tasks that are emotionally difficult.

7. Find Peace with the Decisions that you Make

Sorting through your loved one’s belongings can put you in an emotionally vulnerable place and can lead to self-doubt. Remember: there is nothing to feel guilty about. Letting some things go is not an act of betrayal. On the contrary, it is a gift to your loved one, a tribute. Maintaining a healthy attitude is key. Know that what you are doing is necessary, and view it as one more way to honor the person that you love.

Self-Acceptance

Cleaning out a loved one’s home or possessions after a loss can be a stressful task, so go easy on yourself. Remind yourself of the importance of what you are doing, and keep a positive mindset. Don’t rush through the project, and above all, leave no room for guilt. Love yourself just as you loved the person that you lost. Know that this is a challenging project, and that your best effort is good enough.

 

Developing Your Advance Care Directive

By Planning Tools

What is an Advance Care Directive?

An advance care directive (ACD), also known as an advance healthcare directive (AHD), ensures that your medical wishes will be followed when you are unable to speak or are no longer in a mental state to make cogent decisions. By planning out your wishes in writing ahead of time, you provide healthcare professionals with important guidelines for medical care. The term advance care directive generally refers to two types of documents, the living will and the healthcare power of attorney, although other written and verbal instructions can fall under this category.

The Living Will

The most common type of ACD is known as the living will. Not to be confused with a Last Will & Testament, which deals with decisions to be carried out after your death, the living will is written ahead of time to explain the kinds of medical care that you wish to receive and those that you do not. It helps doctors make important decisions regarding tests, medicines, surgeries, blood transfusions, CPR and feeding tubes.

Healthcare Power of Attorney

A living will does not technically allow you to designate a person to make decisions for you. For this, you will need to turn to a healthcare power of attorney. However, these two forms can often be combined into one document. The person you choose to represent your wishes is often referred to as a health care proxy, and his or her authority will be limited to decisions of a medical nature: legal and financial decisions do not fall under his or her jurisdiction.

DNR and DNI Orders

Though DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) and DNI (Do Not Intubate) orders may be included in the living will, they don’t have to be. A DNR prevents a medic from performing CPR, and a DNI prevents the use of breathing tubes.  These orders can be communicated verbally to your physician, who will put them in his or her medical records.

Planning Your Advance Care Directive

According to the National Institutes of Health, more than one in four Americans will have medical decisions made when they are in a physical or mental state that renders them incapable of communicating their wishes. Some of these people have prepared advanced care directives, but others have not. Without an ACD, this can be a very stressful time for physicians, friends, and family members. It’s never too early to start planning ahead. Here are some tips for getting started:

Consider your family’s medical history: By examining the medical issues that run in your family, you can construct a good genetic map for determining potential health problems.  For example, if older family members have suffered strokes, you may spend some time researching strokes to determine the kinds of decisions that would need to be made if this ever happened to you.

Determine your values: What is most important to you? Would you like to be kept alive by any means necessary? If so, provide clear instructions for doing so. Or are there specific issues that would reduce your quality of life so completely that you would rather not have your life prolonged artificially? If feeding tubes and breathing machines are out of the question for you, make this known, so that physicians and loved ones don’t have to worry about making the wrong decision.

Talk to your loved ones: Once you have started to consider the medical decisions that you would like to make, bounce your ideas off the people closest to you. Ask for feedback from family members and to see what they think of your plan. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s your plan, and you don’t want to distort your wishes to conform to the will of others. But it can be useful to get the opinions of people that you trust.

Research your state laws: As is the case with most medical issues, rules and regulations on advance care directives vary to a certain degree from state to state. Be sure to research your state laws ahead of time to ensure that all of your wishes are interpreted or documented in a way that is legally valid. A lawyer can be helpful in this area, but is not required.

Seal the deal: Consult with your doctor and talk through your wishes to make sure they can be accommodated. Then, fill out the required forms according to your states laws to ensure your wishes will be carried out.

Keep it handy: Once you have completed your ACD, make sure that it is readily accessible. Provide copies for your doctor and your family members, and keep copies of it in locations where it can be easily found. It is not uncommon for people to go through the trouble of creating an ACD that cannot be located when an emergency strikes. It may be a good idea to put a copy in your wallet or the glove compartment of your car for quick and easy access.

Reviewing your ACD: If you change your mind about any issue that has been documented in your Advance Care Directive, don’t worry. You can always update it to reflect more current wishes. If you do this, just make sure that you have destroyed all previous copies to avoid future confusion.

Be Prepared

While the elderly are most in need of ACDs, people of all ages can benefit from a little preparation. Tomorrow is never promised. A sudden onset of an illness or an accident resulting in serious injury could force your family and physician to make some tough decisions. Consider taking these precautionary steps so that you can rest assured that if the occasion ever arises, your medical wishes will be followed and your healthcare team will know how to proceed.

 

What You Need to Know About Veterans’ Burial Benefits

By Planning Tools No Comments

Many veterans and their families are uninformed about the burial benefits they can expect to receive at the time of death. Some veterans assume that Veterans Affairs (VA) will pay for all funeral and burial costs, while others assume that all of their cemetery costs will be covered. In fact, neither assumption is completely correct. While VA does offer many very helpful burial benefits to honorably discharged veterans, their spouses and dependents, this organization does not cover all funeral expenses.

Here’s the bottom line when it comes to veterans’ burial benefits:

Discharge papers are crucial

veterans-burial-benefits

First and foremost, if your family cannot locate your discharge papers, they will not be able to file for any benefits.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs urges veterans to advise their families of their burial wishes and where to find their discharge papers. On their website, VA states:

You should advise your family of your wishes and where your discharge papers are kept. These papers are very important in establishing your eligibility.

At the time of need your family would contact a funeral home who will assist them with making burial arrangements at the national cemetery. You may wish to make pre-need arrangements with a funeral home.

This is because a funeral plan will help you get organized and put all your important documents in one place so that your family can actually claim the benefits that they are entitled to receive.

Payments are now issued automatically

veterans-plot-cost

Rather than being reimbursed for actual expenses, VA has recently made the process of payment of benefits much simpler. According to the VA’s burial benefits website, effective July 7, 2014, VA is authorized to pay most eligible surviving spouses basic monetary burial benefits at the maximum amount through automated systems rather than reimbursing them for actual costs incurred.

Although automated payments will help to speed the process of receiving benefits, certain eligibility requirements must be met. Please note that VA is not responsible for making funeral arrangements or performing cremations. These arrangements should be made with a funeral or cremation provider. Furthermore, any items or services purchased from a funeral home or cremation facility are at the family’s expense. For the latest statistics about the average cost of funeral goods and merchandise without burial, visit the the National Funeral Directors Association website. Families should be aware that VA’s $2,000 maximum burial allowance will certainly help, but that the family will likely incur costs for funeral expenses that will not be covered or reimbursed by the VA, even when the death is service-related.

Your cash allowance for burial depends on how the veteran died

veteran-burial-information

Members of the armed forces who die in service to their country receive the most generous burial allowance. For service-connected death, the VA Burial and Memorial Benefits Fact Sheet states: “If the Veteran died on or after September 11, 2001, the maximum service-connected burial allowance is $2,000. If the Veteran died before September 11, 2001, the maximum service-connected burial allowance is $1,500. If the Veteran is buried in a VA national cemetery, VA may reimburse some or all of the costs of transporting the deceased Veteran’s remains.”

Regarding non-service-connected death, please click here for the latest information regarding burial and plot allowances.

Effective October 1, 2011, there are higher non-service-connected death rates payable if the Veteran was hospitalized by VA at the time of his or her death. For the latest information, please click here.

Where you want to be buried matters

veteran-headstone-optionsAn honorably discharged veteran is eligible to be buried in one of Veterans Affairs’ national cemeteries (as space allows) at no cost to the family. A headstone or marker is also provided by the government, as well as a U.S. flag, a Presidential Memorial Certificate, and military honors. Spouses and dependents may also be buried in a national cemetery along with the veteran or even before if they predecease the veteran.

If a private cemetery is used, burial benefits remain the same, other than the burial space: the headstone or marker, a U.S. flag, a Presidential Memorial Certificate, and military honors are provided at no cost to the family. The burial space in a private cemetery is at the family’s expense. Certain costs may also apply to setting the headstone or marker in place. No benefits are available to spouses or dependents buried in a private cemetery.

Please note that eligibility for benefits must be established on an individual basis and certain requirements or qualifications may apply.

Many veterans and their families don’t realize that they are responsible for funeral expenses that are not covered by the VA, including a casket or urn, services of the funeral director, embalming, cremation, flowers, obituaries, police escort, and more. The VA makes it clear that these and other services provided by the funeral home or crematory are not covered by the government, other than the burial allowance for certain qualifying individuals referred to above.

While veterans’ benefits can be a complicated issue to understand, especially during a time of grief, you can usually find a funeral home in your area that is very knowledgeable about veterans’ burial benefits, military honors, and the claim process. You can also select a knowledgeable funeral home in advance and make prearranged funeral plans to further assist your family if you are a veteran.

What Are My Burial Benefits as a Veteran?

By Planning Tools No Comments

When a veteran dies, the surviving spouse may receive a Veterans Administration allowance as partial reimbursement for an eligible veteran’s burial/cremation and funeral costs.

The benefit is higher if the death was service-related, offering up to $2,000. If the veteran is buried in a VA National Cemetery, a portion or all of the cost of moving the deceased may be reimbursed.

For non-service-related death, the Veterans Administration may provide a limited amount of compensation for burial and funeral expenses and/or transfer of the body, depending on eligibility. Please contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office to find out if you are eligible for any benefits.

Besides a possible burial and plot allowance, all honorably discharged veterans are eligible for the following benefits:

Headstones and Markers

veteran-headstone-options

A deceased veteran, discharged under any condition except dishonorable, is entitled to a standard government headstone or marker. Upon request, at no cost, the VA will furnish the headstone or marker for the gravesite.

Flat markers are available in granite, marble, and bronze. Upright headstones are available in granite and marble. The style must be consistent with existing monuments or markers at the burial site.

United States Flag

veteran-flag-benefit

The VA will provide a United States flag, at no cost, to drape over the casket or urn of a deceased veteran. Only one flag is provided per veteran. In general, the next of kin receives the flag; however, the VA will furnish the flag to a friend upon request.

VA Benefits For Surviving Spouse

veteran-spouse-benefits

One of the most difficult tasks for a survivor after the death of the veteran is the completion of numerous claims forms for VA survivor benefits. To help facilitate the process of claiming a veteran’s burial benefits, below is a list of documents you will need to bring with you to the VA office:

  • Proof of veteran’s military service (Form DD214)
  • Service serial number or Social Security number
  • Veteran’s birth certificate (to determine a parent’s benefits)
  • Veteran’s death certificate
  • Marriage license (if applicable) or divorce decree
  • Children’s birth certificates (if applicable)
  • Government life insurance policy

Please call the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or visit their website at www.vba.va.gov, for more information regarding veterans’ benefits, including who is eligible and what forms need to be completed.

 

Veterans’ Burial Benefits Checklist

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veteran-checklist

To download a PDF version of this checklist, click here.

As a veteran, you can ensure that you and your family receive the burial benefits you are entitled to with a little advance planning. Below is a checklist to assist you in planning ahead as a veteran:

  • Locate a copy of your DD Form 214.
    -The veteran’s DD Form 214 or equivalent is required to access veterans’ burial benefits. This form identifies the classification of discharge. If a veteran has anything less than a general discharge, he or she may not qualify for burial benefits. Make sure your next of kin knows where you keep your DD Form 214.
  • Request a DD Form 214 or equivalent form from the VA if you do not have a copy.
    -If the DD Form 214 is misplaced or lost, contact Veteran Affairs or your local Veteran Service Officer to request a replacement form.
  • Record your wishes about military honors.
    -Normally, your funeral director will contact the honor guard of the veteran’s military branch if military honors are requested. One burial flag will be presented to the next of kin. Make a note of to whom the flag should be presented.
  • Plan for your eligible dependents.
    -You may request burial sites for eligible spouses and dependents, even if they predecease you as a veteran. Please note, gravesites cannot be reserved in advance. If you are requesting burial in a national cemetery, contact the National Cemetery Administration to make burial arrangements at the time of need. The funeral director, next of kin or person making arrangements will fax all discharge documentation to the National Cemetery Scheduling Office at 1-866-900-6417 and follow up by calling 1-800-535-1117. For more information, visit the National Cemetery Administration website at www.cem.va.gov. Burials at Arlington National Cemetery are reserved for military retirees, Medal of Honor recipients or service members who die on active duty.
  • Understand your benefits and what is covered at a national cemetery.
    -A veteran buried in a national cemetery is eligible to receive an opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, government-furnished headstone or marker, one burial flag, a Presidential Memorial Certificate and a grave liner at no cost to the family. Burial benefits available for spouses and dependents buried in a national cemetery include burial with the veteran, perpetual care, and the spouse or dependent’s name and date of birth and death inscribed on the veteran’s headstone, at no cost to the family. Eligible spouses and dependents may be buried, even if they predecease the veteran.
  • Understand your benefits and what is covered at a state cemetery.
    -Burial benefits may also be available at your local state cemetery, including opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, grave liner, and the setting of the government-furnished headstone or marker. An eligible veteran buried in a state cemetery is still entitled to receive a government headstone or marker, one burial flag, and Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family. Check with your funeral director for burial benefits that may be available for eligible dependents at your local state cemetery and any fees associated with burial.
  • Understand your benefits and what is covered if you are buried at a private cemetery.
    -Veterans buried in a private cemetery may be eligible to receive a government-furnished headstone, marker or medallion, one burial flag, and Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family. Spouses and dependents buried in a private cemetery are not eligible for any VA benefits. Contact your local Veteran Service Officer to determine eligibility.
  • Understand that the VA will not pay for cremation or funeral costs in full.
    – The VA may pay the next of kin a burial allowance, depending on the circumstances and eligibility of the veteran. The VA recommends making arrangements with a funeral home to ensure that funeral costs will be covered.
  • Understand that certain conditions affect burial allowance eligibility:
    VA burial allowances are paid to offset an eligible veteran’s burial/cremation and funeral costs. Burial allowances are paid if at least one of the following conditions are met:

    • The veteran dies due to a service-connected disability
    • The veteran is receiving a VA pension
    • The veteran was entitled to receive a VA pension or compensation but decided not to reduce his/her military retirement or disability pay
    • The veteran dies while in a VA or contracted-VA hospital or under VA care
    • The veteran dies while traveling under proper authorization and at VA expense to and from a specified place for the purpose of treatment or examination
    • The veteran had an original or reopened claim pending at the time of death, and it has been determined he/she is eligible for compensation or pension from a date prior to death
    • The veteran died on or after October 9, 1996 while a patient at a VA-approved state nursing home.

Contact your VA office to determine eligibility for a burial allowance.

 

Veterans’ Burial Benefits FAQ

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veteran-questions

What are my burial benefits as a veteran?

The VA offers burial benefits for eligible veterans, their spouses, and their dependent children. The VA offers eligible veterans a burial space in a national cemetery where there is space available, at no cost to the family. Burial spaces may not be arranged in advance but are offered to families as the need arises. In addition, certain state cemeteries offer burial spaces to veterans, at no cost to the family. Be sure to check with your local state cemetery about any fees or charges that may apply. A veteran buried in a national cemetery is also eligible to receive opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, a government headstone or marker, one burial flag, a Presidential Memorial Certificate, and a grave liner, at no cost to the family.

Will the VA pay for my funeral?

The VA does not directly pay for funeral or burial/cremation expenses such as the cost of a casket, embalming, cremation, viewing, flowers, obituaries, or transportation of the remains and family. The person who paid for the funeral expenses of a veteran may be eligible for a reimbursement or allowance for a portion of the funeral and burial/cremation expenses. You may wish to make arrangements with a funeral home in advance to ensure that all the costs of a funeral are covered for your family.

What type of reimbursement or allowance does the VA provide for funeral expenses?

The VA offers an allowance to cover a portion of funeral and burial/cremation costs. If a veteran dies due to a service-connected cause, the family of a veteran may be eligible for an allowance of up to $2,000.  For a non-service-connected death, the VA will pay a specified amount to the family. For the most updated information, please review the Veterans Affairs fact sheet. Plot interment and burial/cremation and funeral allowance amounts are dependent on the date of death and whether or not the veteran was under VA hospital care at the time of death. You can submit a claim using the Application for Burial Benefits form.

What determines eligibility for VA burial benefits/allowances/reimbursements?

To receive VA burial benefits, you must be a veteran of the Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard) with a discharge other than dishonorable. If a veteran has anything less than a general discharge, he or she may not qualify for burial benefits. Certain discharges other than honorable are considered on a case-by-case basis by the VA Regional Office to determine eligibility. Reservists and National Guard members may qualify based on their retirement status and whether or not they have died while on active duty or on official orders. Spouses and minor or disabled children of an eligible veteran may also be eligible for burial benefits. In some cases, parents of an eligible veteran may be eligible for burial benefits as well. To determine your specific eligibility status, contact your VA Regional Office or visit www.cem.va.gov/cem/burial_benefits/eligible.asp for a complete list of eligibility requirements.

family-veteran-benefits

What benefits will my family members receive?

Burial benefits are available for eligible spouses and dependents buried in a national cemetery. Benefits include burial with the veteran, perpetual care, and the spouse or dependent’s name and date of birth and death inscribed on the veteran’s headstone, at no cost to the family.

How does my family request military honors?

Your funeral director will contact the honor guard of the veteran’s military branch to request military honors. One burial flag will be presented to the next of kin. Let your funeral director know to whom the flag should be presented.

How can I ensure my family receives the benefits they are entitled to?

First, ensure that your family is aware of your veteran status and your desire for them to access your veterans’ burial benefits when you die. They will need a copy of your veteran’s DD 214 form or equivalent to access veterans’ burial benefits. This form identifies the classification of discharge. If the DD 214 form is misplaced or lost, contact Veteran Affairs or your local Veteran Service Officer to request a replacement form.

What is the difference between a national cemetery and a state cemetery?

State cemeteries offer burial benefits to veterans, which are similar to those available through national cemeteries. State cemeteries are owned and operated by the state. In many cases, state cemeteries are funded by VA grants and must adhere to federal eligibility requirements. Burial benefits often include opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, grave liner, and the setting of the government-furnished headstone or marker, at no cost to the family. An eligible veteran buried in a state cemetery is still entitled to receive a government headstone or marker, one burial flag, and Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family. Some state cemeteries may charge for interment of spouses and dependent children. Check with your funeral director for burial benefits that may be available at your local state cemetery and for any fees or charges that may be associated with the burial of a non-veteran.

Will I still receive benefits if I decide to be buried in a private cemetery?

Veterans buried in a private cemetery may be eligible to receive a government-furnished headstone, marker or medallion, one burial flag, and Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family. The VA will not pay for cemetery plots or opening and closing of graves at private cemeteries. Spouses and dependents buried in a private cemetery are not eligible to receive any VA benefits. Contact your local Veteran Affairs Officer to determine eligibility.

What happens if my non-veteran spouse or child dies first?

Eligible spouses and dependents may be buried in a national cemetery, even if they predecease the veteran.

How does my family file a claim for burial benefits?

For burial allowance or plot allowance, submit the Application for Burial Benefits form. If requesting burial in a national cemetery, contact the National Cemetery Administration to make burial arrangements at the time of need. The funeral director, next of kin, or person making arrangements will fax all discharge documentation to the National Cemetery Scheduling Office at 1-866-900-6417 and follow up by calling 1-800-535-1117. For more information, visit the National Cemetery Administration website at www.cem.va.gov.

veteran-cemetery-questions

As a veteran, can I be buried at Arlington National Cemetery?

Burials at Arlington National Cemetery are reserved for military retirees, Medal of Honor recipients, or members who die on active duty.

Does the VA cover the cost of transportation to a national or state cemetery?

If a veteran dies as the result of a service-connected disability, is under VA care at the time of death, or is receiving a VA pension or compensation, some or all of the costs for transporting the veteran’s remains to a national cemetery may be reimbursed. The VA will advise the next of kin or person making the burial arrangements on this matter.

Where can I go for more information about my specific benefits?

Contact your VA Regional Office to speak to a qualified Veteran Services Officer to determine your or a family member’s eligibility for VA burial benefits, allowances, or reimbursements.