National Cemetery SystemPlans for Addressing Projected Increases in Veterans' Burials Gao ID: T-HEHS-98-157 April 29, 1998
The National Cemetery System has adopted a five-year strategic plan through 2003 with the goal of ensuring that burial in a national or state veterans' cemetery is an option for all veterans and their eligible family members. Strategies outlined in the plan include (1) building new national cemeteries, (2) expanding existing cemeteries, and (3) encouraging states to provide additional burial sites through participation in the State Cemetery Grants Program. However, it is unclear how the National Cemetery System plans to cope with the demand for burials during the peak years of 2005 through 2010. On a related matter, GAO's analysis of three internment options found that columbaria are the most efficient option because they involve the lowest average interment cost and could significantly extend a cemetery's service life. Moreover, although most veterans and eligible family members prefer a casket burial, demand for cremation is growing. The National Cemetery System agreed with GAO's recommendation to identify opportunities to build columbaria in existing cemeteries and to collect and use information on veterans' burial preferences to better plan for future burial needs.
GAO noted that: (1) NCS has adopted a 5-year strategic plan for fiscal years 1998 through 2003 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; (2) strategies outlined in NCS' plan include: (a) building new national cemeteries; (b) expanding existing cemeteries; and (c) encouraging states to provide additional burial sites through participation in the State Cemetery Grants Program; (3) however, it is unclear how NCS will address the veterans' burial demand during the peak years, when pressure on it will be greatest, since NCS' strategic plan does not indicate how it will begin to position itself to handle the increasing demand for burial benefits; (4) NCS officials stated that beyond 2003, NCS will continue using the basic strategies contained in its current 5-year plan; (5) for example, NCS plans to encourage states to establish veterans' cemeteries in areas where it does not plan to operate national cemeteries; (6) however, since the grant program's inception in 1978, fewer than half of the states have established veterans' cemeteries; (7) states have also shown limited interest in a legislative proposal designed to increase state participation by increasing the share of federal funding; (8) given the magnitude of the projected increase in demand for burial benefits, GAO continues to believe that it is important for NCS to articulate to Congress and other stakeholders how it plans to address the increasing demand; (9) as annual interments increase, cemeteries reach their burial capacity, thus increasing the importance of making the most efficient use of available cemetery space; (10) to identify feasible approaches to extending the service period of existing cemeteries, GAO analyzed the impact of adding burial sites to an acre of land in an existing cemetery; (11) GAO's analysis of three interment options showed that columbaria offered the most efficient option because they would involve the lowest average interment cost and would significantly extend a cemetery's service period; and (12) morever, 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, which varies by region, continues to increase.