VA Funerals During the Coronavirus: Struggling to Stay Committed and Safe
BY WILLIAM TRIPLETT,
photos Courtesy of the National Cemetery Administration
“We’ve conducted operations in the most normal fashion possible than probably anyone you could compare us to across the nation,” said Randy Reeves, VA Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs. Reeves, a veteran of both the Air Force and Navy, is referring to operations of the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, which he oversees and which provides the final resting place for tens of thousands of veterans every year.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered some businesses and brought others to their knees, the NCA has managed to keep all of its 144 national cemeteries open, though not without adjustments. Interment services have never stopped, but committal services—essentially graveside memorial services for families and friends, often including honor guards—were temporarily suspended for about ten weeks. Although committal services have resumed, attendance remains limited as social distancing and the wearing of facemasks are enforced.
“Even though we had to suspend committal services, families were still allowed to observe the interment services,” Reeves said. “No one has ever been kept from coming to a cemetery. We have never closed.”
That’s no small feat given that the need for NCA services never diminished, but rather increased. One cemetery in New York that handled about 20 interments a day before the pandemic now contends with 50 to 60, Reeves said. Older veterans have been among the most vulnerable to the disease, and many have been Vietnam veterans.
“We inter more veterans from the Vietnam Era now than any other period,” a VA spokesman said. According to statistics for fiscal year 2019—the most recent available, prior to the pandemic—42 percent (more than 36,000) of NCA interments that year were for Vietnam- era veterans.
Reeves attributes the so-far largely manageable impact of COVID on NCA services to early planning. “Here at the VA, when we saw the first cases, well before it was declared a national emergency, our medical folks could see already we didn’t know exactly what we were dealing with,” he said. The alarm, in effect, was sounded.
President Trump declared COVID a national emergency on March 13; ten days later, the NCA suspended all committal services because of guidelines the Centers for Disease Control had issued, as well as some guidelines from local authorities where cemeteries are located that affected families and honor guards.
“Even at the local level they were unable to provide military honors for a couple reasons,” Reeves said. “One, the National Guard didn’t have the manpower to do them because they were working elsewhere because of the pandemic. Also, we had some volunteer honor guards across the country—VVA provided those honors in some places, along with other VSOs—but a lot of those people who provided services were a little older and in a vulnerable category and so couldn’t come out.”
Interment services continued due in no small part to what Reeves considers the greatest challenge he’s had to face in dealing with the pandemic.
“I recently had a series of meetings with other senior VA leaders, and the question was asked: ‘What’s been your biggest challenge in the pandemic?’ Mine was the culture of the NCA. Our culture is that each and every person here is committed to doing the job right the first time, every time. And the challenge was to be able to communicate to all our team members across the country and put them at ease that we were doing the right thing in keeping people safe, when the team’s inclination is to always make sure they’re there for veterans and their families.
“So, the biggest challenge was to be able to make sure that all our people were always safe, too, because they were going to serve veterans and their families, regardless,” Reeves continued. “And if that’s my biggest challenge, then that’s a good one to have.”
To Reeves, the biggest impact of the pandemic has been on the families of deceased veterans who were interred during the suspension of committal services. Families were prevented from gathering and grieving in final ceremonies as they normally would. Knowing that has been “heartbreaking” for NCA staff, Reeves said.
“I’ve talked to families personally,” he added. “For the most part, they have been very, very understanding as to the restrictions. But it doesn’t take away any of the anguish we feel for them.”
NCA made a promise: When committal services start again, families could come back and have them, complete with military honors. Reeves said NCA has honored that promise since June 8, when committal services resumed after some guidelines eased. “We are now offering committal services to people who were unable to do it earlier,” Reeves said. “And many are taking advantage of that because it’s important to them.”
But not everything is back to normal. Honor guards—military and volunteer—participate depending upon availability. Families must bring floral arrangements directly to the ceremony site; cemetery personnel will not transport them, according to the NCA website.
Then there’s the ongoing limitation on the number of people who can attend services, which varies from cemetery to cemetery, Reeves said. “On average across the country, people gather in groups of 50, but it’s not the same everywhere because of local restrictions. Some are 10 or 25.”
Unhappy with restrictions, Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in early August, urging him to reverse NCA’s “hypocritical policy limiting attendance at veteran funerals.” Invoking the recent funeral service for the late Rep. John Lewis, which “dozens of my fellow lawmakers attended,” Mast said that the limitation at NCA cemeteries “does a great disservice to those in uniform who put their lives at stake to serve our great nation and deprives our fallen heroes, as well as their families, of the service that they deserve. I am, therefore, strongly urging you to reconsider this policy: all fallen veterans’ family and friends should be able to attend committal services.”
In a written response, Wilkie expressed concerns about “inaccurate characterization” of VA policy, stating: “VA’s primary mission is to ensure veterans and their loved ones are cared for properly and are not at risk of contracting COVID-19. All department policies are geared toward that end during this important time. These policies were developed based on guidance provided by public health experts and potential updates to these policies will be based on consideration of such guidance.”
Wilkie also emphasized that gathering sizes at cemeteries are based on local guidelines.
Asked when he believes operations may fully return to normal, Reeves replied: “We have maintained the closest semblance to normal as we possibly could, given the circumstances. But when do we get back to completely normal? When the country is back to normal.”