These days, most honorably discharged veterans are entitled to military funeral honors in recognition of their service to their country.  Honoring active and former members of the armed services is a long-standing tradition, but it is only in recent years that veterans have been given a legal right to have their status recognized at death with military funeral honors.

Military Funeral Honors

The United States Department of Defense provides military funeral honors without cost to the families of qualified veterans upon request.  Military funeral honors became an official veteran benefit when the National Defense Act of 2000 (Public Law 106-65) was enacted.

The conferees agree that men and women have unselfishly answered the call to arms at tremendous personal sacrifice.  The conferees agree that men and women, who have served honorably, whether in war or peace, deserve commemoration for their military service at the time of their death by an appropriate tribute.  Burial honors are an important means of reminding Americans of the sacrifices endured to keep the Nation free. (Strom Thurmond National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1999, conference report to accompany H.R. 3616, 105th Congress, p.667)

Before 2000, there was no statutory authority for the DOD to honor deceased veterans, but it was customary to provide the family of the deceased with a burial flag and other honors if resources were available.  Often, the burial flag was the only honor families received.

Who is Eligible for Funeral Honors?

For veterans who served on active duty in either peace time or time of war, the following eligibility criteria apply:

Military funeral honors are also available for former members of the Selected Reserve.  The Selected Reserve is a component of the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps reserves.  It is the component of the Reserves that is most readily available for call up to active duty and is normally the first group to be mobilized when needed.  The criteria for Selected Reserve eligibility are:  

Military funeral honors are not available for veterans with a dishonorable discharge, a bad conduct discharge, or those who were discharged as the result of a court-martial.

A less than honorable discharge is not the only thing that can render a veteran ineligible for funeral honors.  Conviction of a state or federal capital crime will also bar a person from military funeral honors.  Timothy McVeigh is one of the reasons for the capital crime ban.  In 1997, Congress passed PL 105-116 to prevent people convicted of a federal capital crime from being interred in a VA national cemetery, Arlington National Cemetery, or state veterans’ cemeteries.  The architects of the 1997 law sought to prevent Timothy McVeigh, an Army veteran convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing, from being buried in a national cemetery or state veterans’ cemetery.  

You probably recall the event.  On the morning of April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh parked a truck loaded with diesel fuel and fertilizer in front of the federal building in Oklahoma City.  He locked the truck, retreated to a safe distance, and set off the bomb.  A massive explosion resulted that destroyed the federal building and damaged more than 300 other nearby buildings.  The explosion killed 168 people; 19 of them were children.  McVeigh was tried and convicted as a terrorist.  No one wanted to see him buried with military funeral honors.

What Do Military Funeral Honors Include?

Public Law 106-65 sets forth the minimum requirements.  There must be an honors detail consisting of at least two uniformed military personnel. One of the servicemen or women must be from the same branch of the armed forces as the deceased veteran.  The ceremony must include folding the American flag and presenting it to the next of kin.  The law also requires that Taps be played.  A bugler is preferred, but a good quality recording of Taps is also allowed.  

Generally, when a family requests military funeral honors, it is the funeral director’s job to make the arrangements.  Funeral directors normally contact DOD to make the request, but there are other avenues to obtain the services.  If the deceased is being buried or ashes interred in a national cemetery, the VA staff at the cemetery may handle arrangements.  Many veterans’ groups also help arrange for military burial honors.

Military Burial Benefits

While most veterans in good standing are entitled to military funeral honors, the same is not true of military burial benefits.   The requirements are much more stringent and are limited primarily to those receiving VA benefits.  The requirements are as follows:

If you are a healthy veteran, not under the care of the VA for a service related injury or illness, you can ignore all those burial benefit ads that come in the mail.  You will likely be entitled to funeral honors when you die but not a burial benefit.