World War II Army Veteran Benjamin B. Belfer proposed the idea of a Presidential Memorial Certificate that VA could give to a Veteran’s next of kin.
The Presidential Memorial Certificate (PMC) is a signature memento the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) provides to next of kin and friends of deceased Veterans. It was the idea of World War II Army Veteran Benjamin B. Belfer, who was born on Jan. 21, 1909.
In January 1962, Belfer contacted Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (D-MN) to propose the new program; the men had met in 1947, when Belfer represented the Jewish War Veterans and Humphrey was the mayor of Minneapolis.
In the photo above: Hubert Humphrey (far left) and Benjamin Belfer (far right). Minnesota Star Tribune, April 30, 1946. Copyright 1946 Star Tribune. Republished with permission of Star Tribune, Minneapolis, MN.
Belfer’s concept was to establish a memorial certificate signed by the president on behalf of “a grateful nation in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration to the service of mankind in the Armed Forces of the United States.” Belfer saw the document as a “valued keepsake” and as an extension of the well-established practice of presenting the family with the U.S. flag that drapes the Veteran’s casket.
Senator Humphrey endorsed Belfer’s idea and forwarded it to John Gleason, Jr., the Veterans Affairs administrator. Gleason requested and received approval from President John F. Kennedy to initiate the program. That program became known as the Presidential Memorial Certificate.
Although VA issued the first PMC on March 20, 1962, it didn’t achieve statutory authority (38 USC 112) for the program until July 24,1965. Printed on mid-weight, light-gray color paper stock, the certificate measures 8.5 by 10 inches and features an embossed gold seal of the United States. Family or friends of a deceased Veteran may request PMCs.
Popularity of PMCs
Letter from Gleason to next of kin announcing the PMC,1963.
In the first two months of the program, VA issued more than 24,000 certificates. In April 1963, VA expanded the criteria from war dead to include Veterans of World War I and II, the Korean War, and peacetime Veterans who died before March 1962. To promote the certificate, Gleason mailed recipients of any VA benefit – an estimated 1.2 million individuals as of May 1964 – the PMC information along with their pension checks. Some questioned this promotional effort as an inappropriate political maneuver by President Kennedy, but public appreciation in the form of thank-you letters sent to the president demonstrated an overwhelmingly positive response. By mid-October 1963, VA reported that it had mailed 486,535 certificates to the families of deceased Veterans.
During fiscal 2018 (ending Sept. 30), NCA issued 517,858 certificates; since the program’s inception, VA has issued more than 19.2 million PMCs.
Originally administered by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), the program was transferred to the National Cemetery System (now Administration) in 1990. In 2016, Public Law 114-315 expanded eligibility for a PMC to include active military service, certain reservists or National Guard members, and those who have an other-than-dishonorable discharge.
Belfer actively advocated for Veterans in many capacities after World War II. He served as secretary-treasurer of the Minneapolis Joint Veterans Council, held the rank of commander of the Minneapolis Post No. 166 of the Jewish War Veterans, and was named the Twin Cities-area coordinator of the Veterans for the Hubert Humphrey-Edward Muskie Committee for the presidential election of 1968. Corporal Belfer died Oct. 28, 1981, and is buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery (Section A-23, site 5792).
Sara Amy Leach is a senior historian at the National Cemetery Administration. NCA researcher, Alan Capps, Ph.D., contributed to this story.