BOSTON — When Wanda Olson’s son-in-law died in March after contracting COVID-19, she and her daughter had to grapple with more than just their sudden grief. The family had to raise the money needed for cremation.
Even without paying for a funeral the bill was nearly $2,000, which is more than Olson had initially paid. The federal program reimburses family members up to $9,000 for the funeral of loved ones who have died from COVID-19. This was discovered by her daughter.
Olson’s daughter submitted an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, received a deposit by June and was able to reimburse her mother the $1,974.
“Had this not been available, we would have been paying the money ourselves,” said Olson, 80, of Villa Rica, Georgia. “There wasn’t any red tape. This was a very easy, well-handled process.”
As of Dec. 6, about 226,000 people had shared in the nearly $1.5 billion that FEMA has spent on funeral costs that occurred after Jan. 20, 2020, the date of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S. With the nation’s coronavirus death toll topping 800,000, it’s clear that many families who are eligible for reimbursement have yet to take advantage of the funeral benefit.
Olson explained that Olson’s son-in-law had been traveling extensively and was working on air conditioning systems at restaurants and theaters. When he started feeling sick, Olson added. He was admitted to hospital after a couple of days and placed on a ventilator. He died several weeks later.
“He could never overcome it,” she said.
In order to be eligible for reimbursement death certificates must state that COVID-19 is the cause of death for anyone who has died since May 16, 2020.
For deaths that occurred in the early months of the pandemic — from Jan. 20 to May 16, 2020 — death certificates must be accompanied with a signed statement from a medical examiner, coroner or the certifying official listed on the certificate indicating that COVID-19 was the cause or a contributing cause of death.
The percentage of individuals who have been reimbursed varies dramatically from state to state — from nearly 40% in North Carolina and Maryland to fewer than 15% in Idaho and Oregon, according to state-by-state data compiled by FEMA.
Although the individuals must receive the reimbursement, funeral directors can inform grieving families about the benefits.
After the benefit was first announced, David Shipper, owner of the Sunset Funeral Home, Cremation Center & Cemetery in Evansville, Indiana, took out ads to let people know that help was available if they qualified.
“Nine thousand dollars — that’s a lot of money. We wanted to find a way to tell people about it,” he said. “We stopped advertising some time ago, but when we have a new family with a death from COVID, we tell them about the program.”
The workers will meet with their families to gather paperwork and then contact FEMA via phone. If they have any questions, they can help guide them through the entire process.
Shipper stated that while many families might not be aware of this benefit, others may choose to avoid it out of fear of having to deal with the grief. According to Shipper, the time is right for the assistance when the funeral planning begins.
“They’re much more likely to take advantage right then than if they’ve already spent the money and don’t want to open it up again,” Shipper said.
Some of the largest shares of FEMA reimbursement money go to the states with the greatest populations.
California and Texas have received more than 21,000 reimbursements from the program. Both states had reported over 74,000 COVID-19-related deaths. In each state, residents applied for over $141 million.
Vermont is home to the fewest reimbursements. 123 individuals were granted a total compensation of approximately $704,000.
FEMA includes funeral services and cremation. It also covers the cost of markers and headstones. Transportation or transfer of remains. Clergy or officiant fees.
Funding for the program was provided by federal stimulus funds. Money is still available. Online applications are not allowed.
FEMA states that it takes less than 30 days for eligibility determination to be made once all documents have been received and checked. Direct deposit applicants may be able to receive their money within days after eligibility has been confirmed. For applicants who ask for a cheque, it may take longer.
The reimbursement is one way of helping ease the emotional and financial burden that the pandemic has wreaked on communities across the country according to Ellen Wynn McBrayer, president of Jones-Wynn Funeral Homes & Crematory in Villa Rica, Georgia.
One woman lost her husband, mother and child to the disease within six months. Another worker at the funeral home succumbed also to the disease.
“To have to help a grieving family is hard on a normal day, but to see so many deaths,” she said. “COVID has just broken a lot of hearts and taken a lot of lives.”