National Cemetery Administration
Facts: NCA History and Development (3 of 3)
3. National Cemetery System to National Cemetery Administration
The Veterans Administration became steward of the 111-year-old National Cemetery System on September 1, 1973. VA re-designated its existing twenty-one burial grounds at the same time to create an organization of 103 national cemeteries composed of more than 4,000 acres; 64 percent of this acreage was developed, but gravesites at the oldest properties were depleted or close to it.
The 1973 act also transferred responsibility to VA for issuing government headstones and markers to eligible veterans and family members. It authorized VA to acquire land to develop cemeteries and establish uniform burial-eligibility criteria, it established a permanent Advisory Committee on Cemeteries and Memorials to consult with the VA administrator, and it directed VA to study criteria for operating the cemetery network.
Among other findings, the 1974 VA study evaluated the placement of cemeteries in ten Standard Federal Regions, introduced a grant program to expand state-run Veterans' cemeteries (authorized in 1978), and proposed the introduction of columbaria to meet the growing popularity of cremation.
In the National Cemetery System's first decade under VA management, six regional national cemeteries opened, and some closed cemeteries re-opened using adjacent land. The expansive new cemeteries boasted manicured burial sections and tree-lined roads; columbaria for cremated remains became regular features, and funeral services were held in committal shelters. In the late 1980s, memorial walkways were added to connect the numerous standard commemorative monuments that Veteran groups continue to donate to national cemeteries.
In 1989, VA was elevated to the Department of Veterans Affairs, a cabinet-level agency. On November 11, 1998, the National Cemetery System was re-designated as the National Cemetery Administration, and the NCA principal was elevated from Director to Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Memorial Affairs.
Between 1997 and 2010, seventeen new national cemeteries opened to serve Veterans of twentieth-century conflicts and the more recent Global War on Terror. By acreage, it was the greatest expansion since the Civil War era. Sites were selected through a series of demographic studies in 1987, 1994, 1999, and 2003, with the goal of providing a 75-mile or less drive from a Veteran's home to a cemetery. To ensure burial access for Veterans living in remote locales, NCA's Rural Initiative plans for eight smaller cemeteries, such as the one in Fargo, North Dakota, that opened in 2019.
Complementing that objective, an Urban Initiative underway since 2011 will result in five — all columbaria national cemeteries in large cities. Most recently, in 2019–2020 the Army transferred ten small historic post cemeteries and one World War II enemy POW cemetery to NCA per Executive Order 13781 (2017) in the cause of increased federal efficiency. The NCA system — more than 150 national cemeteries and associated monuments and solders' lots that are fully operational, under construction, or closed to new burials — exceeds 23,000 acres.
NCA has continued to introduce memorial products to honor Veterans' service, such as a bronze medallion that can be affixed to private headstones in private cemeteries, and memorial walls to remember Veterans whose cremains are scattered or deposited in a garden or ossuary. In addition to the perpetual care of grave sites in its cemeteries, VA opens and closes the grave, and provides a headstone/marker, U.S. flag, and Presidential Memorial Certificates at no cost to the Veteran's family.
Nearly 4.9 million individuals including Veterans of every conflict — from the Revolutionary War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — are honored by burial in VA national cemeteries. Each year about 15 percent of all eligible Veterans who die are interred in a VA national cemetery, while about 5 percent opt for a State, Territorial or Tribal Veterans Cemetery. VA's memorial landscapes convey critical stories about American history — patriotic and partisan service, racial and gender equality, and religious beliefs. VA cemeteries contain more than 400 recipients of the Medal of Honor, nearly 1,370 military memorial monuments from the antebellum period to present, and the remains of President Zachary Taylor and his family.
In addition to Federal service members, more than a thousand World War I and World War II enemy POWs, and approximately 12,000 Confederate POWs, are buried or memorialized in VA cemeteries consistent with U.S. law and recognized rules of war (set out in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and the Additional Protocols of 1977, Hague Conventions 1899–1907, and customary international law). Another thousand ally foreign nationals are buried in these cemeteries. Approximately one-quarter of NCA's cemeteries no longer offer burial space and are preserved as historic resources.
National cemeteries, as determined by NPS as "exceptionally significant as a result of their Congressional designation as nationally significant places of burial and commemoration," are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. More than a hundred NCA properties are listed, and several are part of National Historic Landmark districts.