There are a lot of veterans benefits available for the brave men and women who serve the United States in the Armed Forces. One of these benefits, aside from a military funeral, is the option to choose a VA headstone.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is a VA Headstone?
- How to Apply for and Order a VA Headstone
- Frequently Asked Questions: VA Headstones
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) furnishes these markers at no charge to the applicant. These are for the graves of any deceased, eligible veteran. And, they don’t need to be used in a military cemetery or in any special place.
There are a lot of options to choose from, and these can even be used for already-marked graves. However, there are a few steps family members must complete to secure a VA headstone. If this is something you’d like to do for a veteran loved one, here are step-by-step instructions.
What Is a VA Headstone?
First, what is a VA headstone? Through the Department of Veterans Affairs, eligible veterans can receive a government headstone or marker in any cemetery around the world. This is available regardless of the date of death. This can either be an entire headstone or a government medallion.
Many different types of markers are available. They come in flat markers as well as upright headstones. The materials include granite, marble, and bronze. These can also be used to mark the burial spot for cremated remains.
You don’t need to order a VA headstone if your veteran loved one is to be buried or memorialized in a national cemetery, state veterans’ cemetery, or military base cemetery. This headstone will be ordered directly by the cemetery officials. Note that VA headstones are only available for veterans, not their next-of-kin or spouses.
How to Apply for and Order a VA Headstone
If you’re applying for a VA headstone on behalf of a loved one, there are several steps to follow. Completing this process with the Department of Veteran Affairs can take time, so be sure to follow these steps below carefully.
Step 1: Understand who is eligible for a VA headstone
Before we begin, let’s talk about who is eligible for a headstone from the VA. First and foremost, spouses and dependents of veterans aren’t eligible unless they’re buried in a national cemetery, state veteran’s cemetery, or military base cemetery.
In general, the eligibility for a VA headstone is similar to who can be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The requirements for burial in a national cemetery carry over to this as well.
In order to secure a VA headstone or marker, the deceased must meet one of these requirements:
- A veteran who did not have a dishonorable discharge
- A service member who died in active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty for training
- Spouse or minor child of a veteran who is to be buried in one of the cemeteries listed above
If any of the above apply to your loved one, odds are you’re able to apply for a VA headstone on their behalf. This is a great honor, and it also reduces the overall cost of the burial, since the headstone can be expensive.
Step 2: Apply for the headstone
Once you’ve verified your loved one qualifies with the eligibility terms above, it’s time to apply. There are some limitations to who is allowed to apply. According to the VA, only the following people can apply on behalf of a deceased veteran:
- Decedent’s family member (next-of-kin)
- Authorized personal representative
- Authorized personal representative on behalf of the next-of-kin
- A representative from a Congressionally-chartered veterans organization
- A state or local government employee who serves veterans
- Anyone who is responsible for the disposition of unclaimed remains
The only exception for this is if the veteran’s service ended before April 6, 1916. In this case, anyone is allowed to apply for a VA headstone on the veteran’s behalf. The application for the headstone is on the VA website for download. From there, mail it to the right address on the form.
Additionally, if the veteran is to be buried in a national cemetery, state veteran’s cemetery, or military base cemetery, officials will order the headstone directly from the VA. There’s no need to apply for one directly.
Step 3: Choose your marker
There are several different markers available for the VA. The choice depends on your loved one’s wishes as well as personal preference. Remember there’s no cost for these markers, so choose what’s best for your situation. However, always check with private cemetery guidelines to see what they recommend. Some graveyards have limitations on the size or shape of headstones.
- Upright headstones: These are upright headstones that are made of either marble or granite. This is the largest option and will need to be installed professionally.
- Flat marker: A flat marker can be either bronze, marble, or granite. This is to be laid flat upon the ground to mark the gravesite.
- Bronze niche: This niche marker comes with mounting bolts and washers for attaching it to your own headstone or marker. It’s a simple, classic way to honor someone’s service.
- Medallion: Finally, the VA also provides medallions that can be affixed to an existing headstone or marker. These are used in lieu of a traditional government headstone.
As you can see, there are many options depending on your needs. For those who would prefer a private headstone for their loved one, it’s still easy to honor their service in the Armed Forces. On the other hand, there are full-sized, upright options that are a gorgeous tribute to a life of service.
Step 4: Choose any extras
When you choose your marker type, you’ll also have the ability to choose an emblem. These are known as “emblems of belief,” and they’re easy to customize depending on your loved one’s religion.
View the VA’s full list of emblems on their website to determine which is best for your loved one’s headstone. Some of the choices include:
- Christian Cross
- Star of David
- Buddhist Wheel of Righteousness
- Native American Church of North America
- Hindu Symbol
- Muslim Crescent and Star
Aside from religious symbols, you can also choose from other important belief imagery. There’s a Hammer of Thor, Native American symbols, a heart, and American flags. It’s a very flexible way to express more of who your loved one was and their beliefs.
Step 5: Make arrangements
If you choose to have your veteran buried in a private cemetery, it’s still possible to get a VA headstone. However, note that you’ll be responsible for making arrangements to have it installed. This might be an extra cost through your cemetery, or it could be included in the burial package.
If your loved one is buried in a national, military post, or military base cemetery, this staff is responsible for setting up everything properly. This costs the applicant nothing. Otherwise, all placement costs are at private expense for the family or the estate.
Step 6: Care for the headstone
Finally, once the request is approved and the headstone is placed at the gravesite, create a plan for caring for it. Caring for a loved one’s grave is an easy way to honor their memory and show your respect for their service. While this care is overseen by the staff at national, state, and military cemeteries, it falls upon the family in private cemeteries.
All markers should be cleaned regularly to keep them easy to read and in good shape. While built to last, some damage is normal over time. Maintaining the headstone or plaque is the best way to ensure your loved one’s legacy lives on.
In addition, you can decorate the grave to honor their service. Hanging a small American flag, bringing flowers, or leaving coins on the grave are all time-honored ways of paying tribute to a veteran. This is something you can do on your own or as a family. In many traditions around the world, visiting the grave of deceased loved ones is an important part of many celebrations. Why not welcome this tradition into your own life?
Frequently Asked Questions: VA Headstones
Like most things with the Department of Veteran Affairs, it’s normal to have questions along the way. The process for applying for these veteran headstones takes time and many steps, so review these frequently asked questions below. These answers should guide your process.
What do VA headstones look like?
There are many different types of VA headstones. You’re likely familiar with the most common types, especially if you’ve ever visited a national cemetery. You can choose between either an upright headstone or a flat grave marker. You can also choose any of these materials, depending on the size:
Each VA headstone has an inscription included. This can be customized by the next-of-kin or spouse of the deceased, though some cemeteries might have their own inscription rules. Additionally, you could opt for a headstone medallion from the VA vs. a headstone.
What are some examples of military headstone inscriptions?
The inscription is something the family chooses when it comes to VA headstones. The sizing and spacing depend on the type of marker chosen. The family can include a qualified emblem (cross, star, religious symbol, etc.) as well as their loved one’s military service. They might also wish to include their dates of service and a tribute to their life.
Some examples of military headstone inscriptions are:
- John Smith, Sgt, US Army, Vietnam War, Jan 20, 1940 - Aug 30, 2000, Loving Husband and Father
- Jane Doe, US Navy, Jul 13, 1980 - Jun 10, 2010, Daughter and Friend
- David Service, US Navy, Veteran, Feb 10, 1960 - Jun 15, 2020, Rest in Peace
How do you get a VA grave marker installed?
Aside from ordering a VA headstone, you will also need to plan for its installation. This is something that takes extra arrangements, and you will need to take note of any costs. If you’re placing the VA grave marker in a national cemetery or military cemetery, this is typically done for free.
However, placing the VA marker in a private cemetery requires private fees. These setting fees are created by your cemetery of choice, and prices will vary. When you discuss headstone options with your cemetery, they can provide a clear list of costs and fees.
Can you get a replacement VA headstone?
In some cases, you can get a replacement of a VA headstone. This isn’t a simple process, and you need to meet specific eligibility requirements. According to the VA’s guidelines, the headstone or flat marker needs to meet one of the requirements below to be replaced:
- It’s badly broken, vandalized, stolen, or unreadable
- The inscription is incorrect
- It was damaged during shipping
- It doesn’t meet certain contract specifications
- It’s a history artifact
- It’s over 50 years old
The marker will be verified with existing VA documents to prevent fraud. If it meets one of the qualifications above, it will be replaced “in kind.” This means the family is eligible for the same type of headstone as a replacement for free. The type, material, size, and inscription cannot be changed with the replacement.
However, if the government headstone is damaged in a private cemetery by the cemetery personnel, they are responsible for replacement costs. If you think your veteran’s headstone is eligible for a replacement, contact your local VA office.
Honoring a Veteran’s Legacy
Everyone deserves their time on earth to be honored in the best way possible. The VA does this in many ways for those who served in the Armed Forces. One of these ways is by offering a free VA headstone to those who qualify. As you can see from these steps above, securing this free tribute to one’s service is not a complicated process.
For someone who found pride in serving one’s country, a VA headstone or plaque is a highly esteemed honor. Not only does it help others recognize their service, but it’s a beautiful way to remember a loved one.
If you're looking for more burial planning advice, read our guides on buying a headstone and how to donate a veteran's burial flag.
- “Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. CEM.VA.gov.
- “Eligibility for burial in a VA national cemetery.” The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. VA.gov.
- “National Cemetery Administration.” The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. CEM.VA.gov.
- “Requesting a Replacement Government Headstone.” The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. VA.gov.