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Witness Testimony of Lesley Witter, National Funeral Directors Association, Director of Political Affairs

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today on behalf of the members of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) regarding Veterans’ Cemeteries.  I am Lesley Witter, NFDA’s Director of Political Affairs.

The National Funeral Directors Association represents more than 13,000 funeral homes and over 21,000 licensed funeral directors and embalmers in all 50 states. The average NFDA member is an independently owned and operated business with fewer than 10 employees and has been in the same family for over 60 years. NFDA is the leading funeral service organization in America, providing a national voice for the profession. 

The NFDA has a great interest in veterans’ cemeteries as our members provide both funeral and burial services for our nation’s veterans on a daily basis. As a result, they use national veterans’ cemeteries as well as state veteran’s cemeteries often.

In a recent survey of our members, we have received an almost unanimous response that our nation’s veterans’ cemeteries operate efficiently, effectively and with much compassion for those being buried there, as well as for their families. Our members have found the management and operation of these cemeteries to be courteous, flexible and accommodating to the needs of the funeral director and the family members of the deceased veterans.

While most of our members are well satisfied with the services provided to them by veterans’ cemeteries, there are some improvements that could be made.  As one of our Board members from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania recently stated: “In Western P.A., we have been blessed with a National Cemetery with burials taking place for the past 18 months.  In my experience, those folks have done a superior job in scheduling and taking care of veterans' families.  Every instance of burials in the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies has been respectful and dignified. My only concern is that there are not enough brochures to allow us to publicize its existence and availability.”

An NFDA member from Maine stated that “Togas National Cemetery, the only national cemetery in Maine, is now inactive but well-kept and is the final resting place for 5,373 veterans from the War of 1812 through the Korean War. It was first opened in 1867 and was closed to new burials in 1961. Of historical interest, a Medal of Honor recipient from the "Boxer Rebellion" and three "Buffalo Soldiers" rest there. Additionally, a member of the Army detachment that located and killed John Wilkes Booth is buried there.  The closest national cemetery to Maine is Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, Massachusetts.  Additionally,  Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont do not have any national cemeteries.”

One NFDA member from Florida stated: “Being in Southwest Florida and with the amount of retired veterans that have come to our beautiful side of the state, we deal regularly with the Florida National Cemetery as well as many times with Arlington National Cemetery.  I couldn't be more pleased with how we are taken care of when we call the Florida National Cemetery.  Everyone is pleasant, efficient and knowledgeable and the cemetery is kept up beautifully.

A Massachusetts member writes: “I am a funeral director in Brockton, Mass. We have interments at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne probably 40-50 times a year. The entire staff at Bourne is fantastic. They are very helpful and accommodating to our families and us. I especially appreciate the improvement of being able to call the Jefferson Barracks in Missouri on weekends to schedule funerals in Bourne.  NFDA would like to note that no veterans’ cemeteries are available for burials on weekends, except in special circumstances.  In fact, weekend burials in veterans’ cemeteries appear to be a general problem for many of our members.

An Illinois member stated: “We use the Rock Island National Cemetery quite often; in fact, I have expressed my desire to be buried there since I am an eligible veteran of the Vietnam War.  I really do not know of any way to make improvements.  It is impossible to say enough good about the management, the way families are treated and the way funeral directors are treated.  Please encourage the Veteran's Administration to leave it just as it is.”

A comment from our New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association stated:  New Jersey has one of the highest per capita population rates in the county. In addition, New Jersey and the surrounding states have some of the most congested roadways in the nation. Unfortunately, New Jersey veteran families are underserved by the location of the Mid-Atlantic National Cemeteries. Funeral processions from the Garden State (originating in the North, Central or Southern part of the state) travel a minimum of 3 hours to the closest cemetery (Calverton, Arlington, or Indian Gap). Such excessive travel adds to the cost of the funeral and creates a travel burden on families who would like to visit the grave. Considering the population that would be served, the National Cemetery System should build a new cemetery that would be more convenient for New Jersey Veteran families.”

Finally an Arizona member wrote: “I am very pleased to be able to respond to your request regarding our National Cemeteries - in a positive light.  We have a wonderful National Cemetery and Staff here in Phoenix.  We have no problems with scheduling; if we need a "favor" every now and then, they are willing to go the extra mile for us. They are compassionate with families and are attentive to their needs as well as ours.  I'm sure if you spoke with any of our other Directors they would agree.”

I use these examples from around the country to illustrate that from our member’s standpoint the operation and management of our veterans’ cemeteries is of the highest caliber. Believe me, if it was not, our members would say so. They tend to be very protective of the families they serve, and want to ensure that all families are treated with respect and dignity during all phases of the funeral and internment.

In our dealings with the National Cemetery Administration on issues, problems or questions that arise from time to time, our members found them to be very responsive and eager to assist in any way possible to find a solution. For example last year, one of our members in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts called to express concern over the number of broken or damaged markers they were receiving and the problems that caused for the families. We contacted NCA and they were very helpful in solving this matter directly with the funeral home. NCA advised the funeral home to be sure that their staff inspected the markers before accepting them and to report any damages to NCA. They also indicated that they would look into revising their transportation requirements for the vendors who manufacture and ship the markers to ensure they are being adequately packed and protected. We could not ask more from them.

Finally Mr. Chairman I would like to express our strong support for H.R. 358, a bill that would expand and make permanent the Department of Veterans Affairs benefit for Government markers for marked graves of veterans buried in private cemeteries.  In addition, H.R. 1273 which was introduced by Subcommittee member Rep. Berkley and would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to restore plot allowance eligibility for veterans of any war and to restore the headstone or marker allowance for eligible persons, is currently being reviewed by our Advocacy Committee. 

I would also like to commend the Committee on its passage of legislation that prohibits demonstrations at the funeral and burials of our fallen heroes in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Our members very much appreciate the concern of Congress in protecting the privacy of these very solemn and emotional occasions. 

Mr. Chairman, that concludes my testimony. I hope it has been helpful.

Thank you again for the opportunity to appear and present the views of the National Funeral Directors Association. I will be happy to answer any questions you or other Members of the Subcommittee may have.