By Nicole LaBelle, Legal Assistance Intern

Military Funeral Planning Guidance

Planning a funeral for a loved one is not something anyone looks forward to. Preparing for the day, however, can make it a bit easier to handle during the grieving process, in order for the family member to properly focus on grieving their loved one. Knowing the steps ahead of time can make the process smoother and allow family members to instead focus on the celebration of life, instead of the administrative and logistical headaches that can arise while planning during a difficult time.

The first, and more important step, is to know your options. In many cases, the deceased has a will that, in addition to listing who will inherit property and money and selecting trusted individuals to settle your estate, can describe funeral preferences. Other times, they have told family members what they wish to happen. Often, a family member is chosen by the deceased in advance to be responsible for making the arrangements. Ultimately, it is best to have a will prepared that includes details regarding your wishes to ensure you will get what you want.  Most importantly, it will make the funeral planning process easier for your loved ones.

Working with a funeral home and funeral director can make the process a lot easier, as you will work with someone who handles this type of planning on a regular basis. While most are aware and helpful with organizing the Department of Veteran’s Affairs burial benefits, it is important for you to understand which benefits are awarded by the government and which services are your financial responsibility.

When it comes to arranging where the person’s final resting place will be, military members, veterans and their families have many options. All are free to be buried or to have cremated remains stored in any of the 135 National Cemeteries in the United States, on a space-available basis. There is an exception: veterans who are dishonorably discharged are not eligible. There is specific paperwork that needs to be filled out in order to request burial at a National Cemetery, including the deceased’s discharge, branch and service. However, there is no guarantee that the burial or storage of cremated remains will take place in that specific location. Additionally, a veteran can choose to be cremated or buried in any other way of their choice, so long as it does not violate state or federal laws. It is important to note that VA benefits may be limited depending on the funeral preferences.

It is also important to be aware as to how much the VA will assist with the costs of the funeral. More than likely, they will not be covering all of the costs, which is another way planning in advance can lessen the burden. The deceased’s military services records will need to be submitted as well in order to access the benefits. All active duty services members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard are automatically enrolled in Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (SGLI). This is an additional way to to lessen the cost for surviving family members.

A veteran can choose whether to have a funeral service with military honors. Military funeral honors generally consist of a ceremony where an American flag is draped over the casket, or beside the urn, and after Taps is played, two uniformed military personnel honor the veteran by folding the flag and presenting it to the next of kin. Veterans who meet eligibility criteria may also have a headstone, grave marker or medallion furnished at no cost, although with a headstone, you will be responsible for the cost of placing it, which is referred to as a setting fee. Additionally, you can request a Presidential Memorial Certificate, which is an engraved paper certificate signed by the current president, commemorating the deceased veteran’s service. 

Lastly, the VA offers free bereavement counseling for the families who have lost a loved one on active military duty. Grief support is also offered through various nonprofit organizations. Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) offers an array of programs and resources assisting survivors of military loss.

As you can see, there are many choices that will need to be made when planning a funeral and some of the costs may be covered by the VA.  Like anything else, it is beneficial to plan ahead, both to ensure your personal preferences are communicated but also to help your loved ones with fulfilling your wishes and addressing the resulting costs. If you previously prepared a will and related estate documents, it is recommended you review them from time to time to ensure they still reflect your current preferences.

Here are links to help with your funeral planning:

VA Burial Benefits Information including eligibility criteria, pre-need decision procedures, burial allowance, memorial items including grave markers, headstones and Presidential Memorial certificates, scheduling a burial, benefits for spouses and dependents and bereavement counseling referrals:

National and State/Tribal/Territory Veterans Cemetery Locator:

Active Duty Service-members, Retirees and Dependents with valid Military ID cards can request an attorney consultation to prepare a will, medical and financial powers of attorney and funeral arrangement documents free of charge by contacting the Legal Assistance Office at: 301-677-9504/9536.  The estate planning worksheet, dual representation letter for married couples and attorney appointment request form can be found here: