The Federal Emergency Management Agency has reimbursed burial costs before, but it has never offered as large a payment to so many people. In 2017, for example, FEMA paid $2.6 million to 976 people for funeral costs of victims of three hurricanes — an average of $2,664 per applicant.
But the novel coronavirus’s immense toll means a burial assistance program of an unprecedented scale is now being assembled. More than 557,000 Americans have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Because the number of people who will be eligible is not known, neither is the program’s ultimate cost — but it will easily be several billion dollars. FEMA is setting up a dedicated toll-free hotline — 1-844-684-6333 — and a call center to answer questions about the program and take applications starting Monday, April 12.
“Although we cannot change what has happened, we affirm our commitment to help with funeral and burial expenses that many families did not anticipate,” acting FEMA administrator Bob Fenton said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both New York Democrats, have been pushing to help families pay for burials since last spring, when covid-19 was ravaging their state and mobile morgues were needed to handle the surge of deaths.
“To not be able to give a decent funeral and burial to someone who is near and dear to you is outrageous,” Schumer said at the time. He said people were losing their jobs and without enough money to eat, at the same time that they needed to pay for funerals of loved ones.
Ocasio-Cortez said the pandemic that disproportionately affected Latinos and Black Americans was “decimating an already vulnerable community. . . . The absolute least we can do is to help these families bury their loved ones. It is the very core, basic measure of human dignity.”
Funeral aid was held up during the worst of the crisis last year until then-President Donald Trump signed a nearly $1 trillion covid stimulus bill in the final weeks of his administration. The details were never made clear, but the maximum benefit discussed at the time was $7,000 and the funeral assistance program was to be capped at $2 billion.
After President Biden took office and signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last month, the program was expanded. The funeral aid — even if it doubles from the $2 billion in the measure signed by Trump — is still a tiny fraction of the $1.9 trillion covid relief bill, which was opposed by all but a handful of congressional Republicans.
There are significant challenges in administrating a program of this type. Already, the FEMA website describing the funeral assistance program is alerting people to possible scams: “Fraud Alert: We have received reports of scammers reaching out to people offering to register them for funeral assistance. FEMA has not sent any such notifications and we do not contact people prior to them registering for assistance.”
According to FEMA, applicants must be “a U.S. citizen, noncitizen national, or qualified alien” who paid for funeral expenses after Jan. 20, 2020. In addition, the applicant must show a death certificate that states that the death occurred in the United States and “may have been caused by or was likely the result of COVID-19.”
If any other assistance was already received — from money available to veterans, or burial insurance, or some other program — the aid “will be reduced by the amount of other assistance the applicant received for the same expenses.”
Throughout the pandemic, some people started GoFundMe fundraising accounts online asking strangers to help pay for funerals. Local governments, nonprofits and churches have been pitching in to help families pay funeral bills in many parts of the country, and many will welcome the help from the federal government.
“It’s a well-intended program that will benefit many,” said Bryant Hightower, a Georgia funeral director who is a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association.
But Hightower also said he thought it would be a difficult program to administer. For instance, when an applicant submits a funeral bill that is stamped “paid,” he isn’t sure how FEMA officials would know whether burial insurance had been used to pay for it.
Hightower said that when he and other funeral directors first heard about a possible funeral assistance program, he was told that the maximum benefit would be about $7,000. “We thought it might end up being half of that,” he said. “Quite frankly, we were really surprised when they came out with $9,000.”
The bulk of those eligible have already paid the expenses and must produce receipts and other documentation of what was paid for caskets or urns, burial plots, headstones, funerals, and other costs detailed by FEMA.
David Harrington, a Kenyon College economist who has studied the funeral industry, said the program would likely end up giving more money to wealthier families than poorer ones, at least for funerals from January 2020 until now. Those with more money likely chose a pricier casket and more expensive headstone and have receipts showing they spent $9,000 or more, and so can get the maximum benefit. But the receipts from a low-income family who opted for a no-frills burial will yield a smaller government check.
Harrington said that may change after people become aware of this benefit. “There’s no reason to get a $1,500 cremation if they’ll pay for a $9,000 funeral,” he said.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, many victims, especially those in nursing homes, were suspected of dying of covid-19, but testing was limited. In many cases, overwhelmed doctors and nurses were more concerned with caring for the living rather than testing the dead. Many death certificates, therefore, did not mention covid-19.
Now, to be reimbursed, many families may need to seek out doctors or coroners to amend death certificates.
“This is going to cause some issues,” Hightower said. “It is really going to fall to the doctors and their comfort levels with amending the death certificates.”
Saeeda Dunston, executive director of Elmcor Youth and Adult Activities in New York City, said people were forced to make tough decisions, choosing whether to pay funeral costs or pay rent or buy school supplies for their children. Burying a loved one meant cutting back on groceries and even standing in a food bank line.
“People depleted their entire savings” or put themselves into debt to cover funeral costs, Dunston said. “We should be trying our best to reach the people who need this most to let them know this is available.”