National Cemeteries: A Sacred Trust for 151 Years

In a partnership of shared mission, the National Cemetery Administration, the Department of the Army, National Park Service and the American Battle Monuments Commission, ensure those who fought for this country are guaranteed a proper burial, their loved ones are comforted and their sacrifice is recognized. This sacred trust began more than a century and a half with the passing of the Omnibus Act of 1862, authorizing the establishment of national cemeteries.

“There is no finer work than to help others through their grief; to provide a lasting memory of a dignified burial, a beautifully marked grave or niche; and the knowledge that perpetual care means just that someone truly cares and always will.”
-Robin Higgins, Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, 2001-02

The idea of national cemeteries began shortly after the start of the Civil War. On July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Omnibus Act authorizing the President to purchase “cemetery grounds” to be used as national cemeteries “for soldiers who shall have died in the service of the country.” Before national cemeteries were created, burials typically occurred at the site of death, a military post cemetery or at a private cemetery selected by the soldier’s family.

Seven Pines National Cemetery circla 1912 (Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)

From early Civil War burials directed by the War Department, to today, the notion of honoring U.S. “war dead” and their families has continued to evolve. Many customs and standards considered common by today’s standards are rooted in lessons learned through 151 years of paying tribute to those who served.

As the National Cemetery Administration continues to carry on President Abraham Lincoln’s intentions by caring for service members, Veterans and their families, we ensure they are honored with lasting tributes that commemorate their service to our nation.

Did you know?

  • Failed attempts to identify deceased soldiers during and after the Civil War eventually lead to a 1913 Army regulation mandating identification tags, what we know today as “Dog Tags.”
  • The appearance of national cemeteries is rooted in the post-Civil War era. In 1870, Army Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs consulted noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted about the design of cemeteries. Olmsted’s recommendation to keep the cemeteries “studiously simple” and establish “permanent dignity and tranquility” helped create the look of the national shrines.
  • Eligibility for burial in a national cemetery has changed over time. Starting with a simple definition of “soldiers who shall have died in the service of the country,” today eligibility at VA national cemeteries includes all members of the armed forces and Veterans who have met minimum active duty service requirements and were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable. Eligibility is also extended to spouses, dependent children and some reserve component service members.
  • National cemetery management has changed over the years. Currently, the Army maintains two national cemeteries, the National Park Service maintains 14 national cemeteries, and the American Battle Monuments Commission maintains 24 overseas military cemeteries. The National Cemetery Administration maintains 131 national cemeteries and 33 soldiers’ lots. Additionally, the National Cemetery Administration oversees the VA Veteran’s Cemetery Grant program, which helps to provide gravesites for Veterans in areas where VA’s national cemeteries cannot fully satisfy their burial needs.

Kristen Parker is a public affairs specialist with the National Cemetery Administration. She started her public affairs career 10 years ago with the Department of the Army as both a contractor and DA civilian.

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