Grieving families grappling with the financial burden of funeral expenses for loved ones who died from COVID-19 are eligible for thousands of dollars from the government. Still, not all eligible families have requested the funeral benefit.
The total death toll from the coronavirus hit 974,277 in the U.S. last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while the government has reimbursed over $2 billion in funeral aid — averaging out to $6,500 — to over 300,000 people.
The smaller number of families tapping into the reimbursement stems in part from a lack of awareness of the program — launched a year ago and run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — as well as difficulties with having the required paperwork needed to apply.
“There were definitely some stumbling blocks in the beginning and some bureaucratic loopholes. In the early days of COVID-19, for example, the death certificate was not always attributed to COVID, so that was a problem,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, FEMA’s director of public affairs, told Yahoo Money. “We're trying to better educate people about our program and how to apply. We need to reach even more families.”
The federal COVID-19 Funeral Assistance program will reimburse up to $9,000 in funeral expenses for people who incurred such expenses related to a COVID-19-related death in the United States or its territories on or after Jan. 20, 2020 — with a maximum of $35,000 for families who may have multiple funeral expenses due to COVID-1 — as long as there is proper documentation.
That reimbursement can go a long way, especially for financially vulnerable families.
The median cost of a funeral has increased 6.6% over the past five years to $7,848 and the median cost of a funeral with cremation has increased 11.3% over the past five years to $6,970, according to the 2021 National Funeral Directors Association Member General Price List Study.
This month, FEMA launched a targeted paid media outreach campaign to help get the word out. And while the reimbursement must go directly to individuals, some funeral directors are stepping up to alert families about the benefits of the program.
“We are assisting anyone, to the extent that we are able, since the federal government is not accepting applications from anyone other than immediate family members for the FEMA COVID reimbursements,” Kirk Freyvogel, co-owner of John A. Freyvogel Sons, Inc. Funeral Directors, in Pittsburgh, Pa., told Yahoo Money. “In fact, I just added a link within the last couple of days to the resources on our website regarding the regulations and requirements. And we are helping people get those requirements together if they need assistance.”
How to apply for funeral help from FEMA
To be eligible for reimbursement, the death certificate must attribute the death directly or indirectly to COVID-19 for those who died on or after May 17, 2020.
For a death that occurred in the early weeks of the pandemic — from Jan. 20, 2020 to May 16, 2020 — the death certificate must be submitted along with a signed statement from the original certifier of the death, or the local medical examiner or coroner, either listing COVID-19 as a cause or contributing cause of death, or providing an additional explanation linking the cause of death listed on the death certificate to COVID-19, according to the agency.
What costs the program covers
Expenses covered under the FEMA program include funeral services, cremation, interment, transportation for up to two individuals to identify the deceased individual, transfer of remains, casket or urn, burial plot or cremation niche, marker or headstone, clergy or officiant services, arrangement of the funeral ceremony, use of funeral home equipment or staff, and the costs associated with producing and certifying multiple death certificates.
After all required documents are received and verified, it typically takes fewer than 30 days to determine if an individual is eligible, according to FEMA. Once eligibility is confirmed, applicants who request direct deposit may receive the money within days. It may take longer for applicants who request a check.
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There’s no deadline to apply, so eligible families can still claim the assistance. To do so, all applicants must provide a copy of the death certificate, proof of funeral expenses incurred, and proof of funeral assistance received from any other source.
Applicants can smooth the process by having all the required paperwork ready when they apply, which begins with a phone call to FEMA’s hotline at 844-684-6333 from Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET.
“We know we have more work to do,” Rothenberg said. “Our hope is that more people will take up this opportunity.”
Kerry is a Senior Columnist and Senior Reporter at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon