I was chatting with a genealogy colleague the other day and she mentioned a gentleman who attended one of her programs was upset because he looked for his veteran father in the National Cemetery Administration (Veterans Administration Cemetery Database) and he was not found. In his mind, because his father was a veteran, he should have been in this database. What he did not know or perhaps understand was, only those buried in a National Veteran Cemetery are listed in that database. Once this was explained by my colleague, the gentleman calmed down understood. But this scenario brings up a good point about veteran burials so let’s dive in.
First of all, you want to obtain a copy of the WWI Burial File at NPRC in St. Louis or the IDPF. Read my article on how to access the IDPF as access has changed a lot the last several years.
Where is your veteran physically buried?
Physical burial is not the same as a memorial stone or name on a Wall or Tablet of the Missing. A lot of people who use FindAGrave often miss this detail, or if they are created a memorial, do not always specifically state the memorial is for a memorial grave. A memorial grave means the remains are not physically in that space, but there is a stone so the individual is remembered and honored. Be sure to record this information correctly.
American Battle Monuments Commission Overseas Cemetery.
During World War I and World War II, those who died or were Killed In Action overseas were first buried near where they fell. Then after both wars, the government established permanent military cemeteries for families who chose to have the remains of their family member’s buried overseas or repatriated to the U.S. for burial at home. The American Battle Monuments Commission tends to these sacred overseas grounds. They also maintain the Tablets or Walls of the Missing, for those who are still unaccounted for since the war. You can search for information on a family member buried overseas on their website. Please be aware, if your service member was brought home, they will not be in this database.
It should also be noted, I have read IDPF (death files) that indicate some families chose to leave the remains of their loved one in a European Civilian or Church cemetery OR be transferred for burial to another country. I have read a few Italian surname files where the American family chose to have the remains of their son transferred to the town where the family came from in Italy, for burial. I have also seen in rare cases, the family pushes to have the remains left where they are in a European civilian cemetery knowing the grave may not be maintained to the standards of ABMC. These individuals will not be included in the ABMC database.
Remains were permanently interred overseas for a variety of reasons but the most common were:
- The service member told family he or she preferred to be buried with their brothers or sisters in service where they fell.
- Money. Some families could not afford the burial expenses in a private, church or civilian cemetery even though the government paid expenses to return the remains to the U.S. You can read more about this (and download the IDPF) in my article, A Family’s Grief & the Cost of WWII Repatriation.
- The widow, or she had remarried, legal next of-kin (father, mother, etc.) may have chosen to leave the remains overseas as it was easier. Many widows who had not remarried and were still legal next of-kin also chose to leave their former husbands overesas. In some ways, this may have helped with grief and a new marriage, often to a veteran. Then the war hero who gave the ultimate sacrifice was “out of sight and out of mind” for the new husband. May sound harsh but rings true for some widows.
Veterans Administration National Cemetery.
In this cemetery you will discover the graves of individuals and group burials (think airmen whose remains could not be identified separately due to the way they died), buried in the National Cemeteries. Not all veterans were buried in these cemeteries, whether Arlington National or a state National Cemetery. If your veteran was not buried in a National Cemetery, they will not appear in that database linked above.
Local church or civilian cemetery.
There are countless civilian and church cemeteries across the country in which you might find veterans buried. Some are easy to spot because they have a military issued grave marker, whether standing stone or flat marker. There are also veterans buried or cremated in these cemeteries which have no military marker so you may walk right past them not knowing they served.
There are also non-military issued stones or monuments that have military service information on them. My great grand uncle Michael Kokoska’s grave is one example. His family chose to have a monument with a soldier standing guard on top and a photo of him in uniform with his unit and death information.
You will not find these veterans in a National Cemetery or ABMC database either. You may find them on one of the grave recording sites like BillionGraves or FindAGrave or with the cemetery records. Perhaps the cemetery has been indexed and that is online.
The Missing & Memorial Stones
From World War I to Vietnam we still have thousands of service members who are unaccounted, meaning still Missing In Action (MIA). You will find their names on the ABMC Tablets or Walls of the Missing for World War I and World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Some families also chose to place a memorial stone in their family cemetery plot. Normally they have the words In Memory of or In Memoriam. This indicates there are no physical remains there, just a stone. When you record this information in your family tree database or online, be sure to make a notation if the “grave” you record is a physical grave or a memorial grave. The same applies if the remains are finally recovered and identified and buried permanently in a Veterans Cemetery or the family cemetery. Make sure the information is accurately recorded.
Did My Veteran Have a Military Issued Marker?
If your veteran is buried in a church or civilian cemetery and you do not find a photo of their grave online and cannot visit, you can check the Ancestry database US, Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1970, to see if a military marker was issued. Be aware, the government did not always accurately verify what a family member wrote on this form, especially about the unit. My cousin Frank Winkler’s application stated he was in the 129th Infantry (Regiment) of the 29th Division. This is incorrect as the 129th Infantry Regiment was not part of the 29th Division but the 33rd Division. So the government official did not do his or her homework and Frank’s grave has incorrect unit information on it. Just because it’s carved in stone does not make it true.
Do you have any questions about military burials? Please ask in the comments.
Are You Ready to Start Writing and Researching?
I would love to help you research and write the stories of your family members from World War I – Vietnam. If you are ready to start a research or writing project, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s set up a free phone consultation. I’m excited to help you bring your family’s military history to life and preserve it for generations. Also visit the Ancestral Souls Wisdom School to learn how a Genogram Session can help you identify your ancestor’s trauma and patterns and start to heal.
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