National Cemetery System:

Opportunities to Expand Cemeteries' Capacities

HEHS-97-192: Published: Sep 10, 1997. Publicly Released: Sep 10, 1997.

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Cynthia A. Bascetta
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) National Cemetery System (NCS), focusing on: (1) NCS' plans for addressing veterans' future burial demands; (2) the relative 30-year costs of three types of cemeteries: casket-only internment, cremated internment in columbarium niches, and in-ground internment of cremated remains; and (3) what NCS can do to extend the service period of existing national cemeteries.

GAO noted that: (1) NCS projects that demand for veterans' burial benefits will increase; (2) NCS has adopted a 5-year strategic plan with the goal of ensuring that burial in a national or state veterans' cemetery is an available option for all veterans and their eligible family members; (3) strategies outlined in NCS' plan include: (a) establishing five new national cemeteries; (b) developing available space for cremated remains; (c) acquiring contiguous land at existing cemeteries; and (d) encouraging states to provide additional burial sites through participation in the State Cemetery Grants Program; (4) the strategic plan does not tie its goals to external factors, such as the mortality rate for veterans and veterans' relative preferences for burial options, that will affect the need for additional cemetery capacity; (5) it is unclear how NCS will address burial demand during the peak years when pressure on it will be greatest, since NCS has not developed a strategic plan for beyond 2000; (6) according to NCS' Chief of Planning, beyond 2000, NCS will continue using the basic strategies outlined in its current 5-year plan; (7) NCS plans to encourage states to establish veterans' cemeteries in areas where it does not plan to operate national cemeteries; (8) fewer than half of the states have established veterans' cemeteries; (9) states also have shown limited interest in a legislative proposal to increase state participation by increasing the share of federal funding; (10) GAO estimated the present value of the costs of three types of cemeteries, each with 50,000 burial sites, over a 30-year period; (11) planning, designing, constructing, and operating a cemetery of casket grave sites and no other burial options would be the most expensive interment option available; (12) the costs for a cemetery that offered only a columbarium and one that offered only in-ground cremains sites would be about the same; (13) while the cost of a casket-only cemetery would be over $50 million, the cost of a cremains-only cemetery would be about $21 million; (14) while the majority of veterans and eligible family members prefer a casket burial, cremation is an acceptable interment option for many, and the demand for cremation continues to increase; (15) as annual internments increase, cemeteries will reach their burial capacity, increasing the importance of making the most efficient use of available cemetery space; and (16) GAO's analysis of three interment options showed that columbaria offer the most efficient interment option because they would involve the lowest average burial cost and would significantly extend a cemetery's service period.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 1998, NCS completed a planning document which outlines how it plans to address veterans' long-term burial demand through 2010.

    Recommendation: To better serve the American veteran, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should instruct the Director of NCS to extend its strategic plan to address veterans' long-term health burial demand during the peak years of 2005 to 2010.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 1999, VA stated that it planned to conduct a national survey of veterans in fiscal year 2000. This survey was to include questions on veterans' burial preferences. As of July 2001, VA had not yet conducted the survey. VA now expects the survey to be completed in the summer of 2002, and plans to use the survey data in the fall of 2002. In September 2002, VA stated that they had contracted for a survey of veterans that included questions on veterans' burial preferences. The contractor has completed the survey and expects to issue a draft report to VA in October 2002. The National Cemetery Administration will use these data for planning purposes beginning the first quarter, fiscal year 2003.

    Recommendation: To better serve the American veteran, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should instruct the Director of NCS to collect and use information on veterans' burial preferences to better plan for future burial needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NCS' most recent planning document (August 1998) states that within each annual update of its 5-year plan, consideration is given to all sites that may need or warrant the establishment of columbaria. The planning document shows that columbaria are either planned or under construction at eight national cemeteries. Four of these eight national cemeteries are under construction and should be completed by the end of 1999.

    Recommendation: To better serve the American veteran, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should instruct the Director of NCS to identify opportunities to construct columbaria in existing cemeteries, for the purpose of increasing burial capacity and extending the cemeteries' service period.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs


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