Late last year, funeral directors heard about something new from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Jim Fernald of Brookings-Smith Funeral Homes wants everyone to know.
The federal government has long provided free grave markers for honorably discharged veterans, including flat stone markers, upright stone markers like you’d see at Arlington National Cemetery, or bronze plaques in two sizes. But not every veteran or veteran’s family chooses these options.
“What we’ve found is that there are so many veterans [who have] bought their own markers,” Fernald said. “There are all different reasons for that.”
For example, many people like to have their markers purchased and in place before they die. Some may be matching stones with a family plot or may not care for the designs of the government stones. But when volunteers come around on Memorial Day to plant flags on veterans’ graves, those without markers identifying them as veterans get missed.
“I know probably half of veterans we meet with families already have their own stones,” he said. “Every Memorial Day, we always get a complaint: ‘Why didn’t they know that my husband was a veteran?’ If it’s not a veteran stone, they wouldn’t know that. This is one way to signify that.”
Now, families of deceased veterans can request the DVA’s new bronze medallions instead of stones, which can be easily affixed to existing headstones and ensure veterans in private cemeteries are properly identified. The medallions are available in three sizes: 1.5 inches, 3 inches, and 5 inches. The medallions come as a kit with all mounting hardware and instructions. Using the included epoxy, anyone can easily affix the medallion to the headstone. If you’d prefer to use the included screws, the DVA recommends hiring a stone mason or monument company, as it requires drilling into the stone with specialized drill bits.
Families can request the medallions through their funeral directors, who can help them file the right forms, but there are two requirements. First, the veteran must have died on or after Nov. 1, 1990. Second, the family must have a copy of the veteran’s discharge paperwork. For military veterans, this is a DD Form 214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty); for National Guard veterans, this is an NGB Form 22 (Report of Separation).
Whether stone markers or medallions, Fernald said the government has always provided top-notch materials. “Since I’ve been a funeral director… they’ve never cut back on the quality of these things,” he said.
Brookings-Smith Funeral Director Chris Bowers has a unique view from both angles. He grew up in a funeral-home family before joining the Army in 1970. He worked in personnel and logistics, some in field artillery, and served with combat engineer unit. Most of his duty was stateside, but he went to Germany once and to Canada several times. He retired in 2000, a Chief Warrant Officer 5. Then he joined Brookings-Smith.
“I was getting ready to retire, wondering what I was going to do, this is something I knew how to do,” he said. “So I went to school, got my license.”
His military service has always been strong in his mind, however. A few years ago, when he heard about the funeral directors working at Dover Air Force Base who hadn’t had time off due to the heavy workload as bodies of service men and women came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, he took a week off to go down and volunteer his time as a civilian funeral director.
“I knew that they were having people come in just so that people who worked there full time could take vacation time,” he said. “So I went down over the Fourth of July one year, worked for a week. It was a quite an experience.”
Bowers really appreciates the medallion project.
“I think it’s great — to honor the veterans so that those that have purchased their stones by themselves because they wanted something specific can identify them as being a veteran,” he said.
“It just makes it so they can put that flag there [on Memorial Day],” said Fernald, “to give them the dignity and respect they deserve.”