How to get help with COVID-related funeral expenses

Carol Plummer Wright helps a client in the casket show room at Dudley Funeral Home in Dublin in March. The funeral home handled a high number of funerals over the last year. Now some of those families may be eligible for federal relief. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Carol Plummer Wright helps a client in the casket show room at Dudley Funeral Home in Dublin in March. The funeral home handled a high number of funerals over the last year. Now some of those families may be eligible for federal relief. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In his 30 years in the funeral business, Cy Hume’s involvement in helping families memorialize their loved ones usually ended after the services concluded.

But in the age of the coronavirus, that is no longer true.

A.S. Turner Funeral Home and Crematory, where he is funeral director, spent the last month reviewing the files of more than 800 families that have contracted services within the last year. The goal is to help eligible individuals tap a federal program that helps to reimburse them for funeral services for loved ones who died of COVID-19 or complications of the virus.

“Because of the delicate nature of this, we don’t discuss specifics, but I can tell you it’s going to help a lot of people,” said Hume, who is co-owner of the Decatur mortuary, which is one of Georgia’s largest family-owned funeral homes. “We want to make sure that families get the information they need.”

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Georgia has had about 17,600 confirmed COVID-19 deaths and more than 2,600 probable deaths, according to the state Department of Public Health.

The reimbursement program, launched in the spring under the American Rescue Plan of 2021, is being run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Up to $9,000 is being reimbursed per death for expenses, such as internments and cremations, incurred after Jan. 20, 2020.

Cy Hume, part owner of A.S. Turner & Sons funeral home in Decatur, has been helping eligible clients tap a federal program that helps reimburse them for funeral services for loved ones who died of COVID-19. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Cy Hume, part owner of A.S. Turner & Sons funeral home in Decatur, has been helping eligible clients tap a federal program that helps reimburse them for funeral services for loved ones who died of COVID-19. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

As of late last week, FEMA told the National Funeral Directors Association it had received 147,000 applications from families across the U.S. and distributed roughly $423,000. There is no deadline to apply.

FEMA requires that individuals call its toll-free hotline to complete the application process, which takes about 20 minutes, funeral industry officials say. Getting through can be a problem, though. The first day the program was announced, FEMA said its call center received more than one million calls, and its hotline has continued to be inundated.

“I can tell you it's going to help a lot of people."

- Cy Hume, funeral director at A.S. Turner Funeral Home and Crematory

FEMA set up the hotline to curb the potential for fraud, said Ed Michael Reggie, CEO of a comparison website for funeral and cremation services.

“It’s a very generous program,” said Reggie, of Funeralocity, which is based in New York. “FEMA has never been equipped to take on something like this. So, they’re trying to keep a very tight lid on it, not even allowing people online to make an application, so concerned bad actors will go online.”

Still, much confusion exists about the program, Reggie and others say.

Families must submit evidence of the death and funeral expenses, such as death certificates and contracts signed with the funeral homes, receipts and other documents before they can be compensated.

Garry Duty, left, and Deric Thomas, both funeral home staff, place a casket in a viewing room at Dudley Funeral Home in Dublin in March. In August and September of 2020, the funeral home was handling two or three services a day. It usually does five or six a week. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Garry Duty, left, and Deric Thomas, both funeral home staff, place a casket in a viewing room at Dudley Funeral Home in Dublin in March. In August and September of 2020, the funeral home was handling two or three services a day. It usually does five or six a week. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Experts encourage families to gather pertinent documents before they contact FEMA.

These are FEMA’s answers to some of the frequently asked questions about the program.

Q: Who can apply?

A: You must be a U.S. citizen, non-citizen national or qualified alien who paid for funeral expenses after Jan. 20, 2020. Funeral expenses must have been for an individual whose death occurred in the U.S. territories or District of Columbia and may have been caused by or was likely the result of COVID-19.

Q: My family lost two loved ones to COVID-19. Can we get reimbursement for both?

A: Yes. For those who lost multiple individuals, assistance is limited to a maximum of $35,500 per application per state.

Q: What funeral expenses are covered?

A: Transportation for up to two individuals to identify the deceased individual, transfer or 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, cremation or interment costs, costs associated with producing and certifying multiple death certificates, additional expenses mandated by any application local or state government laws or ordinances.

Q: How do I apply?

A: Applicants can call 800-462-7585 or 844-684-6333. The lines are staffed from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. eastern time Monday through Friday. No online applications will be accepted. When applicants call, it should take about 20 minutes to apply.

Q: Someone else helped me pay for funeral expenses. Can they apply for funeral assistance?

A: FEMA will generally only provide COVID-19 funeral assistance to one applicant per deceased individual. However, one co-applicant can be included on the application.

Q: Can a funeral home apply on behalf of the family?

A: No. A funeral home cannot be an applicant or co-applicant. The person applying must be an individual, not a business, who incurred the funeral expenses.

Q: What types of information do I need?

A: An official death certificate that attributes the death directly or indirectly to COVID-19, and shows that the death occurred in the U.S., including the U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.

Funeral expense documents include receipts, funeral home contracts that include the applicant’s name, the deceased person’s name, the amount of funeral expenses and the dates the funeral expenses happened.

Q: If I received funds from other sources for funeral costs, can I be reimbursed for those?

A: FEMA does not duplicate benefits received from burial or funeral insurance, financial assistance received from voluntary agencies, government agencies or other sources.

Q: I’m getting a busy signal. What do I do?

A: Keep trying at other times. FEMA says it has more than 5,000 agents taking the calls and has tapped other federal government employees to assist. There is no deadline to apply.

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