All large funeral services and military burial honors will cease at veterans cemeteries nationwide starting next week as part of federal efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Veterans Affairs officials made the announcement Friday afternoon, with the new policies effective on March 23. That means that funeral services scheduled for this weekend at veterans cemeteries will continue as planned.
But starting Monday, “committal services and the rendering of military funeral honors will discontinue until further notice,” according to the department notice.
In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the move was necessary for the sake of public health.
“We are committed to the safety of our veterans, their families and employees, and (we) have implemented an aggressive public health response to COVID-19,” he said. “At the same time, we continue to take steps to provide flexibility to veterans and their loved ones, where possible.”
More than 130 veteran cases have been confirmed in patients at 38 different VA medical centers across the country. The New Orleans VA Medical Center has the most, with at least 42 cases so far.
Two deaths have also been attributed to coronavirus in veterans under the department’s care: One in Vermont and one in Oregon.
Nationwide, more than 15,000 cases of the illness have been confirmed, and more than 200 deaths connected to the fast-spreading virus.
In response, several states have called for residents to limit their public movements and avoid mass gatherings. Earlier in the week, President Donald Trump said that for the next few weeks, Americans should avoid any events or interaction with groups of more than 10 people.
VA officials have already put in place limitations on visitors to VA medical centers and other facilities, and encouraged individuals showing symptoms of the virus to call ahead to doctors before visiting any hospitals.
The new cemeteries notice said that even with the new restrictions, immediate family members will be allowed to witness the burial of their loved ones at veterans cemeteries. However, those groups will be limited to no more than 10 people.
Families wishing to postpone a funeral service scheduled for after March 23 can contact local officials to make other arrangements. Individuals can also call the National Cemetery Scheduling Office at 800-535-1117 or access the office online to see their options.
“Although VA national cemeteries remain open to visitors, guests are strongly urged to obey local travel restrictions and avoid unnecessary travel,” the VA announcement said. “Certain portions of a cemetery typically open to the public, such as public information centers or chapels, may be closed to the public.”
VA handles burial services for more than 130,000 veterans and eligible family members annually, according to department records.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.