contributed by Melissa Lucas, senior staff writer
The military is rife with symbolism and tradition. From the insignia used on flags to the rules surrounding military burials, everything has a meaning. Here’s a brief history of our National Cemeteries, military headstones, and the ways we honor our fallen soldiers.
Between 1861 and 1865 nearly 700,000 service members (roughly 2% of the American population) died fighting in the Civil War. Just one year into the war the number of bodies in need of burial far exceeded the capacity of the cemeteries in existence at the time. In 1862, The United States established the National Cemetery System to provide burial space for these fallen soldiers. By the end of the war, 25 National Cemeteries had been established.
After the North claimed victory over the South, officers surveyed Civil War theaters to find dead Union soldiers and rebury them in newly established National Cemeteries. By the time this was completed, another 50 National Cemeteries had been added. Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs maintains 155 cemeteries in 42 states.
The National Cemeteries Act was approved in 1867 and burial practices were standardized, leading to the formal system which is in place today. This includes not just burial rites in National Cemeteries, but specific headstones and markers, engravings, and emblems.
Although they appear nearly identical from a distance, prior to WWI there were several options available for military tombstones marking the graves of fallen American soldiers. Three sizes of white marble headstones, and one white granite headstone were available for Union soldiers who lost their lives during the Civil War. All of these include a recessed shield carved into the stone. Raised within the shield is the soldier’s name, dates of birth and death, and perhaps a few identifying letters related to his rank or awards bestowed upon him for his service.
Eventually, Confederate soldiers who lost their lives in battle were permitted to be buried in National Cemeteries and were provided with military gravestones, as well. By this time burial practices had been streamlined, and only one size headstone was available. These are made of marble and do not include the recessed shield but include the Southern Cross of Honor at the top of the stone.
After WWI, the only type of military headstone design approved to mark the gravesite of American soldiers was a white, upright stone made of either marble or granite.
However, additional service member and veteran grave markers were made available in the form of plaques.
The options for military plaques for graves include flat bronze or granite markers, which are each 24” x 12”. The bronze plaques weigh about 18 pounds and the granite upwards of 130!
Smaller, bronze niche markers are also available. They are about 8” x 5” and 3 pounds.
There are only a few pieces of information approved to be inscribed on service member and veteran headstones or markers. They include:
In addition to text inscriptions, each Veteran headstone can include a single emblem of belief based on religious preference. To date there are 98 U.S. military grave symbols from which to choose, and they include everything from a standard Christian cross or Jewish Star of David to the Sacred Heart, Hammer of Thor, or even the Wiccan Pentacle.
The following Veterans, service members, spouses, and dependents a are eligible to be buried in a national cemetery:
In the event that a qualifying Veteran or service member was not buried in a National Cemetery, the VA offers the option (if allowed by the cemetery) to place a second marker in the form of military headstone, footstone, or plaque on the gravesite. Alternately, medallions can be furnished and affixed to existing stones.
Medallions are available in lieu of a traditional military headstone or marker for Veterans who served after April 1917 and who’s grave in a private cemetery is marked with a previously purchased, non-military headstone or plaque.
Bronze medallions come in three sizes, each with the word Veteran inscribed at the top, service branch at the bottom, and an image of the folded American Flag at the center. These can be affixed to a privately purchased grave marker.
The only other medallion available is a Medal of Honor medallion which may be affixed to the headstone or marker of a Veteran who was awarded this medal for his or her service. They must be specially requested, and a claim approved before the military will supply a Medal of Honor medallion for a Veteran’s grave marker.
For more information about Veteran and service member burial benefits, military headstones and memorial items, and details regarding burial and headstone eligibility, visit the VA’s Burials and Memorials webpage.