Unsung FEMA program provides funeral expenses for confirmed COVID-19 deaths

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A little-known federal program is helping Americans cover the cost of funerals for their loved ones who passed away because of COVID-19.

On Sunday, Fox Business recounted the story of Georgia resident Wanda Olson, whose son-in-law died from the virus in March, leaving her and her daughter to struggle both with grief and the expense of his cremation.

“Even without a funeral, the bill came to nearly $2,000, a hefty sum that Olson initially covered. She and her daughter then learned of a federal program that reimburses families up to $9,000 for funeral costs for loved ones who died of COVID-19,” Fox Business reported.

Her daughter filed an application with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and in June, $1,974 was deposited in her bank account, giving her the ability to reimburse her mother.

“Had this not been available, we would have been paying the money ourselves,” said Olson, 80, of Villa Rica, Ga. “There wasn’t any red tape. This was a very easy, well-handled process.”

The network reported that as of Dec. 6, roughly 226,000 people had participated in the program, with FEMA disbursing around $1.5 billion for funeral expenses from COVID that occurred after Jan. 20, 2020, as long as that was the confirmed cause of death. “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,” Fox Business noted.

Olson said that her son-in-law traveled quite a bit to work on air conditioning systems in businesses, restaurants, and theaters when he began to feel sick. After he spent a few days trying to recoup at home, he went to a hospital and was eventually put on a ventilator. He died several weeks later, however.

“He could never overcome it,” Olson said.

Death certificates for persons who died after May 16, 2020, must show that COVID-19 was the cause in order to be eligible for the benefit.

For those who died early on in the pandemic, between Jan. 20 and May 16, death certificates have to have a signed statement from a medical examiner, coroner, or another certifying official that COVID-19 was the cause of, or contributed to, the person’s death, the outlet reported.

Percentages of residents who have been reimbursed funeral expenses under the program differ significantly from state to state, from around 40 percent in North Carolina and Maryland to less than 15 percent in Idaho and Oregon, the network noted, citing FEMA data.

And though the reimbursement has to go directly to individuals, funeral directors have begun to inform grieving families that the benefit is there for them.

One of them, David Shipper, owner of the Sunset Funeral Home, Cremation Center & Cemetery in Evansville, Ind., took out advertisements in the local media informing residents that help was available for them if they qualified.

“Nine thousand dollars — that’s a lot of money. We wanted to find a way to tell people about it,” he told Fox Business. “We stopped advertising some time ago, but when we have a new family with a death from COVID, we tell them about the program.”

He added that staffers at his funeral home sit down with families and walk through the process with them, even contacting FEMA by phone if they ask for assistance.

“Expenses covered under the FEMA program include funeral services, cremation and interment, as well as the costs for caskets or urns, burial plots or cremation niches, markers or headstones, transportation or transfer of remains, clergy or officiant services, and the use of funeral home equipment or staff,” Fox Business noted.

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