National Cemetery System

Opportunities to Expand Cemeteries' Capacities Gao ID: HEHS-97-192 September 10, 1997

In fiscal year 1996, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spent $73 million to bury 72,000 veterans and their family members in national cemeteries. These burial grounds, however, are rapidly running out of space. As World War II veterans age, the number of deaths and internments in national cemeteries are rising and expected to peak sometime early in the next century. Because of the depletion of available gravesites, more than half of the national cemeteries will be unable to accommodate casket burials of family members before then. VA has several options to deal with this situation, including establishing new national cemeteries, developing space to hold ashes of the deceased, and acquiring additional land adjacent to existing cemeteries. GAO found that increased use of cremation, which is growing in acceptance nationwide, could extend the capacity of existing cemeteries at the lowest possible cost. For example, the cost of a traditional cemetery would exceed $50 million, while the cost of an above-ground columbarium, which holds cremations, would total $21 million.

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.


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