Arlington National Cemetery and the VA’s National Cemetery Administration (NCA) have found ways to continue honoring veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Funeral honors have been adjusted by both departments, but leaders have said they are committed to paying tribute to veterans and support for their families. Arlington National Cemetery has mandated face covers and other measures, while the NCA – which oversees 142 national cemeteries and the resting places of more than 4 million Americans — has started a digital tribute.
“Laying a loved one to rest is a very hard process already,” said Karen Durham Aguilera, executive director of the Office of Army Cemeteries, the agency that manages Arlington National Cemetery. “It is a time of grief and sorrow, and it’s also a time of celebrating that loved one’s life. So when the families are able to bring that loved one here and lay them at rest, it does provide a measure of closure and peace and comfort.”
In March, Arlington National Cemetery closed to the public, while the NCA suspended military funeral honors at its cemeteries.
At Arlington, funeral services continued because servicemembers who conduct the ceremonies are stationed in the region, and the grounds are large enough to accommodate the six-foot social distancing guideline, Durham-Aguilera said.
Services are being conducted with military funeral honors only, which includes 16 personnel who make up the casket team, firing party, bugler, flag presentation, noncommissioned officer or officer, and chaplain. Each servicemember is required to wear a matte black face cover, and the flag is folded and put on a table for the next of kin to receive after the servicemember departs.
Escort services that are typically part of funeral services at Arlington – the horse-drawn caisson platoon, marching unit, band – have been halted.
Families can choose to proceed with the funeral under these measures or wait until conditions ease up, Durham-Aguilera said.
“We adapt and we keep our mission,” Durham-Aguilera said. “Our core mission is to serve veterans and their families and lay them to rest right here at these hallowed grounds in what truly is a national shrine.”
Get the latest rules on Arlington visitation and ceremonies here.
NCA Changes and Roll of Honor
Unlike Arlington, the VA’s cemeteries were forced to suspend all military funeral honors.
The driving factor was that the cemeteries don’t have dedicated honor guard units; instead, relying on volunteers from veteran groups or National Guard units. That posed a challenge: Veteran group volunteers are often older and part of the COVID-19 risk group, and many National Guard members have been called up in support of COVID-19 efforts.
“We are going to continue to provide committal services and military honors at a later time once we get back to normal operations, but the most important thing for us is to provide dignified burial options,” said Randy Reeves, Under Secretary of Memorial Affairs and a MOAA member. “Even with the restrictions that we’ve got, families are able to come out to the cemetery and witness the actual interment.”
The VA has also started a digital tribute page, the Roll of Honor. The website is regularly updated to include the fallen veteran’s name, service and location of burial.
The Roll of Honor began April 13. Veterans who were interred before April 13 are commemorated in the Veterans Legacy Memorial, which is a permanent, more-detailed tribute page. Roll of Honor veterans will be added to the Veterans Legacy Memorial as well.
The NCA is working with families to schedule committal services once the pandemic passes, according to the NCA website. The scheduling office in St. Louis will continue to provide scheduling services for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. To schedule a burial, call (800) 535-1117, option 1.
“We’ve had remarkable understanding and patience exhibited by our families out there who have had to bury a loved one during the pandemic,” Reeves said. “This is people going through the worst time of their life and then also to add on that, (seeking) the ability to be able to grieve in the normal ways. I’ve just been absolutely impressed and in awe of the strength and resilience of our veteran and military families.”
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