RD173 - Commemorating Military Service and Sacrifice in Virginia: An Analysis of Veteran Memorial Needs - May 2013

Executive Summary:
This study evaluates the interment needs of Virginia's veterans and assesses progress made since a report, "Meeting the Memorial Needs of Virginia Veterans: An Analysis of Existing and Proposed Cemetery Sites," was published in 2007. Since then, significant changes have occurred in federal and state policy, veteran demographics, consumer interment preferences, and the availability and projected longevity of regional, national, and state veterans' cemeteries. These changes merit a re-assessment of many of the issues addressed in that study.

The previous study recommended that the Virginia Department of Veterans Services make long-term plans to establish a new veterans cemetery in Nelson County. This recommendation was based on two considerations. First, the study found that a 50-mile distance service area boundary should be used in Virginia state cemetery planning because burial data for the cemeteries showed that the vast majority of veteran interments were drawn from within 50 miles of a state cemetery. This finding was consistent with some national research at the time that a 75-mile service area radius used by the national Cemetery Administration (NCA) in cemetery siting was too large. Second, the Culpeper National Veterans Cemetery, which provides approximately 250 interments each year, drawn mainly from a population of veterans who reside in Northern and Central Virginia, was projected to be depleted for casketed burial within 15-20 years or as early as 2022 unless additional land was secured to extend the life of the cemetery. A location analysis found that a new Nelson County cemetery would serve the largest population of unserved veterans if one assumed a 50-mil service area radius and Culpeper National Cemetery were closed.

Since the last report, the NCA has substantially overhauled its criteria for establishing new veterans cemeteries and reaffirmed its support for the 75-mile straight-line distance standard in funding new cemetery construction. It has decreased the unserved veteran population threshold required to establish a new national cemetery from 170,000 to 80,000. For areas with fewer than 80,000 unserved veterans, states can initiate application to the State Cemetery Grant Program for a new state veterans cemetery. The NCA has created an "urban initiative" where small cemeteries would be developed for columbaria and mausoleums in large cities that are less accessible to existing national cemeteries on the basis of travel time and other indicators. Lastly, the NCA is establishing "National Veterans Burial Grounds" within existing private or public cemeteries in rural areas with fewer than 25,000 unserved veterans in states without a state veterans cemetery or access to a national cemetery.

The Virginia Department of Veterans Services (VDVS) has also made several significant changes. The VDVS opened its third cemetery, the Southwest Virginia Veterans Cemetery, in Pulaski County in 2011. Interments at existing cemeteries have continued to increase due to the expanded visibility that comes with cemetery exposure and expanded outreach efforts. In addition, the VDVS has either now pre-installed or is in the process of installing outer burial containers at all three cemetery locations. The availability of these outer burial containers in the future at no cost to the veterans will make casketed burial a more affordable interment choice and provide an additional cost edge over interment in private cemeteries. Lastly, the VDVS has suspended its residency eligibility requirement for veteran interment. This policy change has been encouraged by the NCA, and now most state cemetery systems have adopted this same policy.

Veteran demographics and consumer preferences have also changed. Since the last study, the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs (USDVA) has issued newer sets of veteran projections. The most recent product is the VetPop2011 model projections, which were published in January 2013. These projections show a significant increase in Virginia's veteran population over the planning horizon and an increased number of deaths compared to previous projections. They also show a varied pattern of veteran population growth within the state. The Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia regions are expected to see increases in their veteran populations, and the balance of the state will experience significant decreases. Consumer interment preferences are also evolving. Increasing numbers of consumers are selecting cremation for its cost, simplicity, and environmental impact. Demand for cremation continues to outpace projections. New survey data and projections from varied sources such as the Cremation Association of North America, the Funeral and Memorial Information Council, and the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs indicate that cremation will continue to grow as an interment choice and may overtake casketed burial in the next decade.

In contrast to the previous report, a 75-mile straight-line distance standard was adopted for cemetery location analysis in this study. This decision is made for two reasons. First, at the time of the last study, the distance standard was under review and the USDVA had contracted with an independent consultant to examine the issue. Since that time, ICF International has published its study and recommended the retention of the 75-mile standard. Furthermore, the NCA has adopted this recommendation and reaffirmed its support for the foreseeable future in awarding funds to states for new veterans cemeteries. Second, the with the maturation of the Virginia veterans cemeteries and more extensive outreach and marketing activities being undertaken by the VDVS, veteran burial draw rates have improved markedly within the 75-mile service areas with much improvement also occurred within the 50-75 mile distance band. Therefore, current research and federal policy argue in favor of using the 75-mile standard. However, this study also examines the impact of using an alternative distance standard based on travel times along existing roadways. This access standard was suggested as an alternative measure in the ICF International study.

A location analysis reveals that new cemetery placement in Amherst County would provide the most optimal solution for Virginia veterans. This cemetery extends service to the greatest number of Virginia veterans based on the NCA 75-mile standard and would best position the state for the eventual closure of Culpeper National Cemetery. Moreover, Culpeper National is not optimally located to serve the needs of Virginia veterans, and its closure and replacement by an Amherst County cemetery would provide a more centralized cemetery service area solution for the Commonwealth. The development of this fourth cemetery would result in four state contiguous cemetery service area bands that run parallel from east to west serving: (1) the Tidewater region, (2) the Piedmont region, (3) a region encompassing southern Shenandoah Valley and part of the Piedmont region, and (4) the Blue Ridge Highlands. Mountain Home National and Quantico National Cemeteries would cover the balance of the state, including the Appalachian region and Northern Virginia respectively. The new cemetery system would provide uninterrupted cemetery service for 99 percent of Commonwealth veterans for at least a fifty-year time span.

Projections indicate that between 1,700 and 2,500 interments would be handled within a four-cemetery system by FY 2033 and potentially 36,000-55,000 veterans over the period FY 2014-2040. These projections are based on USDVA veteran death projections, estimates of county burial draw rates, and alternative assumptions about burial draw rate growth. Albert G. Horton, Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery in Suffolk would have the largest volume of burial activity and its interments would grow throughout the period even under very conservative burial draw rate assumptions. A new cemetery in Amherst County would handle approximately 300-370 burials each year, making it similar in volume to Virginia Veterans Cemetery in Amelia. Approximately 120-135 burials can expect to be first-interment casketed burials each year. Therefore, allowance should be made for at least 25 acres to accommodate casketed burial for an 80-year period. Based on the number of projected interments, DVS staffing guidelines would call for 2 administrative employees and 4 groundskeepers at an Amherst County veterans cemetery.

The upper range of projections is predicated on continued improvements in burial draw rates for the cemetery service regions. Virginia State Veterans Cemeteries veteran burial draw rates are currently about half of those achieved by the entire national and state veterans cemetery system (i.e., 6 percent of all veterans within the service area interred versus a 12 percent rate nationwide). Virginia state cemeteries are still relatively new and, with the exception of Albert G. Horton, Jr. Memorial Cemetery in Suffolk, are somewhat remote from large urban areas. These features may depress draw rates. Moreover, national cemeteries offer comparatively lower interment fees and may have greater drawing power. Outreach and marketing measures taken by the VDVS in recent years may have contributed to recent improvements in draw rates. A further scaling up of these efforts could be important to making further progress on interment rates.

The VDVS has expanded its outreach and marketing, through both traditional channels and new media. For example, the cemetery superintendent of the newly established Southwest Virginia Veterans Cemetery devotes one day of aggressive outreach each week to church and veterans organizations throughout the West Central and Southwest region. The VDVS has also recently instituted a new program called the "Virginia Military Funeral Honors for Unclaimed Veterans' Cremains Program" which encourages funeral homes, crematories, and other organizations to identify unclaimed cremains that may be eligible for interment in a veterans cemetery. The VDVS has also upgraded its website. It has been revamped and now includes a section devoted to the veterans cemeteries. In addition, the department has established a presence on the social media site Twitter.

The potential exists to offer more online services. Several types of information provided by cemeteries are not yet available on the VDVS website, such as information about the cemetery's history, obituaries of newly interred veterans, videos, and information about additional resources. Links could be provided to outside sources such as a new USDVA online funeral directors resource kit that provides multimedia materials to educate funeral directors on how to assist veterans in understanding their eligibility and memorial benefits. Another option would be to develop interactive web-based tools that would allow veterans to enter information online and receive information on their eligibility and burial benefits. The VDVS could augment and integrate its Twitter presence with other social media such as Facebook and YouTube as several other state veterans affairs departments have done.

The VDVS could also expand the interment options available. Growing consumer price sensitivity, expanding environmental awareness, and increasing cultural diversity are driving changes in interment choices. Private and veterans cemeteries are increasingly offering more varied green memorial options such as scattering gardens. The VDVS anticipates adding scattering gardens as part of Wood Walkway projects progressing at all three cemeteries. However, an ongoing effort to fund Wood Walkway improvements from private donations has slowed progress in this area. The VDVS may want to examine the introduction of scattering gardens earlier at one cemetery with the assistance of departmental funds as a way to test the popularity of this interment option and examine the cost effectiveness of introducing it elsewhere.

In order to maintain cemetery quality and ensure continued positive messages by way of word-of-mouth, the VDVS may also want to consider expanding its quality assessment efforts. The department already uses several service delivery measures that align with NCA performance measures. These measures could be expanded to the customer satisfaction area. The NCA and several state veterans cemeteries regularly conduct cemetery service satisfaction surveys. Surveys could be designed for next-of-kin for first interments to assess burial services, facility quality, grounds appearance, and staff availability and courtesy. The pre-application form could also be re-designed to help assess marketing and outreach efforts by soliciting information from veterans on why they chose the state veterans cemetery and what sources of information they relied upon to find out about their state veterans cemetery burial benefit.