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Front Page - Friday, November 19, 2021

Another COVID toll: $2B for funeral costs

Tennesseans wary of vaccinations, open to FEMA burial assistance

Pulverized homes, splintered trees and decimated buildings over a mile-long debris trail. Scorched earth or waist-high floodwaters. Those images of natural disasters come to mind when the Federal Emergency Management Agency rushes in the help Americans in times of need.

But there’s another FEMA national disaster relief plan that seems very much under the radar – funeral assistance program for victims of these disasters.

FEMA normally provides “help with the cost of unexpected and uninsured expenses associated with the death of an immediate family member when attributed to an event that is declared to be a major disaster or emergency,” the agency states.

But it has never handled a disaster as large as the COVID 19 pandemic and has already paid $1.3 billion in funeral assistance, as much as $9,000 per death. As much as $2 billion has been allocated.

Why don’t people know more about this assistance? It could be as simple as not thinking of COVID as being in the same category as hurricanes or floods. But COVID has killed far more Americans – 762,000-plus – than those natural calamities.

By comparison, U.S. floods, hurricanes and tornadoes accounted for a combined 5,919 U.S. deaths from 2000-2020. And from 2010-2020, there were 35,654 total U.S. fire deaths.

“FEMA has reimbursed many, many times in natural disasters and they thought it was important to do this for COVID patients because it certainly has been a disaster in our country,” says Randy Anderson, named president of the National Funeral Directors Association last month at their Nashville convention. He operates Radney’s Funeral Home in Alexander City, Alabama.

The $1.3 billion that FEMA has disbursed for COVID-related funeral costs has gone to more than 200,000 Americans so far and are for deaths occurring on or after Jan. 20, 2020. Reimbursements are capped at $9,000 per death.

Tennessee, which ranks No. 22 in U.S. per-capita COVID deaths and No. 44 in vaccinations (49% fully vaccinated), is taking advantage of the program at a higher rate than most states, ranking 12th nationally for COVID funeral assistance applications, approved money and number of awards, FEMA reports in its November statistics.

“COVID-19 funeral assistance has brought much-needed financial relief to individuals who have incurred COVID 19-related funeral costs,” a FEMA spokesperson says, calling the relief program “the largest funeral assistance mission the agency has ever implemented. The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 appropriated $2 billion to FEMA to provide financial assistance to individuals and households for COVID 19-related funeral expenses.”

Rodney Wells, general manager of Nashville’s Woodlawn-Roesch-Patton Funeral Home and Woodlawn Memorial Park, says the FEMA program has been a boon for families – especially those that have lost more than one family member to the pandemic.

‘When you have a sharp increase in the death rate like that with a virus, it does put a hardship on families when they have maybe two or three family members that passed away, not just one,” Wells says. “They’re having to make arrangements or come up with the money to pay for the services and grave spaces or the cremation process.”

Michael Frazer, general manager at Forest Lawn Funeral Home & Memorial Garden in Goodlettsville, says he’s not sure why more Tennesseans haven’t applied for aid.

“On our end, all we can do is inform the family of FEMA COVID relief,’’ he says. “We just provide them the information. I’ve had families that used it (and) I’ve had other families (who) for whatever reason decided not to use it.”

Funeral costs vary greatly, depending on what each family wants, ranging from thousands of dollars for elaborate caskets and services to a few hundred for cremation. Walker Posey, a fourth-generation funeral director, offers a glimpse at median family expenses.

“If you’re talking about families who choose to have a service (and) a casket, the average cost is around $7,500. For families who choose cremation with a service, the average cost is $5,100,” says the managing director at Posey Funeral Directors in North Augusta, South Carolina.

FEMA statistics through Nov. 2 show 9,044 Tennesseans have applied for assistance and 4,913 have received reimbursement awards totaling more than $33,960,310. More than 16,500 Tennesseans have died from COVID.

“In Nashville, over 200 individuals who have applied received more than $1,430,000 in assistance, with an average of over $6,900 per applicant,” FEMA notes.

FEMA money, of course, comes from taxpayers.

“Ultimately, it is coming from the government, so, ultimately, yes, it did come from you at some point,’’ says James Olson, owner of Olson Funeral Home & Cremation Service in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Two Tennesseans who have used FEMA’s COVID-19 Funeral Assistance are Duena Parker of Murfreesboro and Sharon Swafford of Goodlettsville. Here’s a look at how each dealt with not only the loss of loved ones but the FEMA program as well, followed by a deeper look into other aspects of COVID’s FEMA program.

Paperwork complications

Parker’s mother, Bernita Rayford-Kershaw, 64, died Jan. 9 in New York, just a few months after retiring as an investigator for the New York Police Department. The FEMA program was announced in late March, and Parker says she applied the day it launched in early April.

“I can’t remember exactly the date that I applied, but it was the day they said you could sign up for it on the website, that’s the day I applied for my mom. Everything was OK, but when you have to submit a document, I guess you couldn’t submit more than one document at the same time.” Parker recalls.

The process moved slowly in the earliest days of the FEMA response. The agency’s May report shows that out of the 4,444 Tennessee applications received, only seven had been approved with $42,648 awarded to families.

Blame was mostly assigned to a lack of documentation. That was the case for Parker, who shared funeral expenses with her brother Darnell Rayford, a New York City police officer. Getting information from New York officials, she says, was challenging.

“The biggest issue (for FEMA) was, ‘Oh, the death certificate needs to say ‘COVID.’ Well, each state is different,” Parker explains. “In New York state and New York City, the death certificates are actually different because her (state) death certificate said ‘natural causes.’

“Then the medical examiner also released a ‘cause of death’ certificate (that stated ‘COVID’ as the cause). So I had two papers for her, the death certificate and then the actual cause of death certificate, which would normally would be given if it was a homicide (or) suicide.

“But in her situation, it said ‘COVID 19’ as her cause of death. So I submitted that and then they were like, ‘Oh, we don’t have this form’ and ‘we need this paper,’ and I was like, ‘well, I submitted that paper.’”

The reimbursement also was complicated by the fact that her brother paid for the funeral expenses in New York but Duena, as the older sibling, was the one filing for FEMA assistance. She says she repaid her brother for her share of expenses and had to document that.

“So they let that go, and we got the initial money (from) FEMA. It didn’t cover everything,” Parker adds.

FEMA covered airplane tickets for both Parker and her husband Phillip. She says the $3,000 it cost to open and close the plot was covered by FEMA, but that the casket was not.

“So we’re still out about $3,000. They covered $7,000, and we paid about $15,000 for her funeral. So, you know, they didn’t cover everything.”

Twice the tragedy

Double misfortune struck the Swafford family this summer when Sharon’s son Scott, 41, and husband Noel, 74, died eight days apart. Scott died July 30 and his father Aug. 7. Both were U.S. Air Force veterans.

Sharon says she only filed for the FEMA assistance in October because there were so many other details that needed to be immediately addressed.

“We’re just beginning the process. We received the FEMA letter Sept. 22 and filed in late October. We have not received anything (as of Nov. 9),” she says.

And for others who will be filing, she has some advice:

“Go over everything twice and make sure you have the disaster number; emphasize that on each page (of the documents),” she explains.

Frazer, the general manager of Forest Lawn, says the FEMA program is “a positive, especially during the pandemic.

“With families (like the Swaffords) struggling and people being out of work, it has helped a lot of families that otherwise wouldn’t have the means to recover from having to pay for a funeral,” Frazer says.

“Both (Swafford) men were veterans and having to go through the Veterans Administration and do paperwork, and then you’ve got Social Security and other financial things that have to be taken care of after losing two loved ones, so the COVID relief benefited them greatly.”

Tara Bessling, the area operations director of Tennessee for Northstar Memorial Group – it owns Spring Hill Funeral Home and Cemetery off Gallatin Pike, as well as operations in Memphis – says the pandemic added to the family stresses because it is often an unforeseen or unexpected death. Also, funerals were often limited to immediate family only.

“Losing a loved one is hard in any circumstance, and then adding on the pandemic, a lot of times families have not been able to gather as a family for quite some time because of the fears of not wanting to potentially give another loved one COVID,” Bessling says.

“So that’s one of the things that a lot of families have experienced is that where normally a family will get together and have great quality time. That’s been minimized.

“From what we can see, it makes it even harder for the families because if the pandemic hadn’t happened, their loved ones would still be with them. So that has been a very hard emotional toll for the families that we serve. A lot of the families themselves are still recovering from COVID.”

How it works, doesn’t work

Woodlawn’s Wells points out that even though funeral homes are there to serve families, they have little to do with FEMA’s assistance program other than pointing families in the right direction to get started.

“We don’t answer (families’) questions because we don’t know the correct answers all the time,” Wells acknowledges. “So the only thing we do is give them the help line number to call (844-684-6333, FEMA.gov) and let the experts handle that side of it. We don’t want to mislead them or give them any false information.”

FEMA’s spokesperson says documentation is the key to getting reimbursed quickly.

“The eligibility decision process begins after the applicant submits all required documentation. Once the agency receives all documentation, processing can take several weeks to complete,” a FEMA spokesperson notes.

“Applicants are not required to pay funeral expenses in full prior to receiving assistance. However, applicants must provide FEMA with a signed funeral home contract, invoice or similar legal documentation that shows the individual incurred COVID-19-related funeral expenses on or after Jan. 20, 2020.”

Bessling explains how the FEMA program impacts both families and funeral homes – that families pay for the funeral upfront and then are reimbursed for those fees as well as certain related expenses.

“We see on the front line what the devastation COVID has caused,” Bessling says. “We have seen a lot of death calls. Families have reached out to us because they’ve had a loss of a loved ones.

“The FEMA program is up to $9,000 currently, and you are able to submit anything – travel or related expenses – to help with the services or arrangements of the loved one that passed away from COVID.

“So, for example, if the funeral services were $5,000 – and that was everything on the funeral home side – if the next of kin, the purchaser, the one that was paying for everything, had to travel in from out of town, they could keep their receipts for the travel, like the airplane and things like that, the hotel, and be able to submit that for them to review.”

Olson says it can sometimes take months for families to be reimbursed but valuable in time of crisis.

“We know expenses can be, obviously unexpected, but also expensive, especially if there was no planning involved ahead of time – which is what happened with COVID. So the program is there for families to apply for it,” Olson says.

“With any government agencies, the timeline takes a little while. There’s a lot of paperwork a lot of go back and research. They actually do check to make sure that things were legitimate. There is proof required – a death certificate that has to have the cause or one of the contributing causes as COVID on the death certificate.

“It is a reimbursement program and will help defray some of those costs. A death in the family is terrible enough to begin with, let alone adding the stress of, ‘how are we going to pay for this now?’ They need a copy of the funeral bill from the funeral home showing those expenses and any other receipts that they may have incurred that are directly related to the funeral itself.”

Valid expenses also can include such standard items as grave markers or a new suit for the deceased. A new suit for someone attending the funeral would not be covered.

“A lot of times families, for example, will need to go out and buy a new suit for grandpa because he didn’t have one being in a nursing home. That would be an expense that could be put on,” Olson adds. “But it doesn’t count for the new dress you want to wear to the funeral. It would have been legitimate expenses, not the ones that aren’t.”

Also, prepaid funeral expenses will not be reimbursed.

“They will only cover it if it comes out of pocket in what we call an at-need situation,” Frazer says. “An at-need situation is where the family doesn’t have any prior arrangements or whatever and they have to purchase at the time of need.”

Adds NFDA president Anderson: “Families know that they’ll have money coming back to them that they had to spend on funeral services. That helps families because many of them had, because of COVID, unexpected deaths. They may not have been prepared so they are able to apply to the government to have some or all of those expenses reimbursed to them after that bill has been paid.”

And like every other business these days, Bessling says supply chain issues have affected the funeral industry, including the timely delivery of caskets, headstones and grave markers. Families that pay for headstones or markers at the time of the funeral but don’t take delivery until later can file the expense with FEMA as long as they have the receipt.

Bessling cites one funeral in which it took nine months for a family to receive the marker.

“But even if it took nine months to get it in, the family would have already purchased it,” she explains. “The purchase would happen first so they would have those expenses to be able to submit if it hadn’t come in yet. They would still know the amount and they would still be paid for it.”

COVID is everywhere, affects everyone

When someone dies of COVID, it often means that other family members contracted the disease and survived. That was the case for both Parker and Swafford. It also was the case for Bessling, who notes that funeral home personnel come into contact with the loved ones of COVID victims daily.

Parker says that while she and her husband battled COVID in Tennessee, her mother was being treated for cancer late last December and caught it from her son, who unknowingly was infected at work by his police sergeant.

“It was a lot harder because you have someone that’s blaming themselves for something that they could not help,” Parker says. “It’s not my brother’s fault, and we don’t blame him. He did his job as a friend by taking her to a chemo appointment and, unfortunately, she did get COVID because of it.

“And then for his sergeant to have that guilt, because he is the one who gave it to (Darnell). … So in our situation, it was a little different because of how she got COVID.”

Bessling says her family likely contracted COVID from someone at their children’s school and that she had to isolate 10 days before she could return to work. She says dealing with the disease gave her a new perspective on what it’s like for families.

“I’ve not been fearful of the virus, but I do respect it. When I say that, I mean I know that it is a deadly virus that can kill people. We see it every day,” Bessling says.

“So when I was told that I had COVID, that afternoon going home I just remember thinking, ‘that virus that is inside of me is killing so many people.’ And I’ve seen it firsthand kill so many people just through our funeral home. I had to quickly shift my mind and think, ‘OK, I can’t think like that.’

“That’s been a hard reality for not only myself but our staff and for the families and the communities – that there’s a lot of unknowns. Like you just don’t know how the virus is going to react in your body. Because of that, I think that our staff and the people in our funeral professions – and health professionals – are true heroes because they put 150% every day into taking care of families.”

Swafford says both she and her son’s family continue to struggle with the double loss of a father and son. Like Parker and Bessling, she and other family members also contracted COVID but survived.

“I started praying and asking the Lord Jesus to help me at the very beginning of this,” she says.

“He has helped me through this whole horrible thing. He has given me the peace, courage and comfort that you would not believe and which nobody can do that for you. … I know my son and my husband are both with Him.”

And for the foreseeable future, the FEMA funeral assistance program is going to be there for those families that need financial help to get through these terrible times.

“The Tennessee Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers extends its heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of any Tennessean who may have lost a loved one to COVID-19,” says Board Executive Director Robert Gribble.

“I urge affected Tennessee consumers to learn more about this federal financial assistance program in order to help cover burial expenses that may have been incurred. Consumers who have questions about the program should contact FEMA directly for more information, including possible reimbursement of funeral expenses up to a maximum of $9,000 per funeral.”