Thousands of people who lost members of their family to COVID-19 have received federal financial help for funeral costs, and the U.S. government has just changed the rules to help more people qualify.
As part of the government’s pandemic relief effort, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is paying up to $9,000 per death for COVID-related funeral expenses.
FEMA began accepting applications in April and says it has awarded more than $447 million in funeral assistance to nearly 67,000 applicants. More than 600,000 Americans have died in the pandemic.
This month, the agency changed its policy to better cover deaths that occurred early in the pandemic.
Initially, all applicants had to submit a death certificate that specifically listed COVID-19 as the cause of death. But when doctors were first learning about COVID-19 and testing was limited, the coronavirus wasn’t always cited on the certificate. FEMA required families seeking funeral aid to obtain amended death certificates, which can be difficult and time-consuming.
Now, applicants seeking help with funeral costs for COVID-related deaths that occurred from Jan. 20, 2020, to May 16, 2020, may submit a death certificate that does not specifically cite COVID-19. But they must also submit a signed letter from the certificate’s “certifying official, medical examiner or coroner” attributing the death to the virus.
The change was made after consultation with officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “and other health experts,” FEMA said in a statement Tuesday.
Politico has reported that FEMA made it easier for people to apply after talks with the CDC as well as Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Both are Democrats from New York, which was hit hard in the pandemic’s early days.
Applications for deaths that occurred after May 16, 2020, must still include a certificate that attributes the cause to COVID-19.
FEMA’s media office said that Congress had appropriated $2 billion for funeral aid for deaths associated with COVID-19. There now is no deadline to apply for the assistance, the office said in an email.
Funerals can be expensive. The median cost of an adult funeral — including a coffin, a viewing of the body, a ceremony and burial — was $7,640 in 2019, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. (Updated data is expected this summer.)
Cremations have been increasingly popular in recent years and are typically less expensive. The median cost of a “direct” cremation, with a container provided by the family, was $2,395 in 2019. (In a direct cremation, the body is cremated shortly after death without services like embalming or visiting hours.)
Here are some questions and answers about funerals and FEMA’s aid program:
Q: How do I apply for funeral help from FEMA?
A: Applicants should call the agency’s help line at 844-684-6333. According to FEMA’s website, no online applications will be accepted. Applicants must provide the name of the deceased person, the date of the funeral and documentation of the expenses. Documents can be uploaded onto a special website or sent by fax or mail, according to the help line.
Many funeral homes are making families aware of the federal program, but funeral directors cannot apply for aid on their behalf, said Randy Anderson, president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association, an industry group. Directors, however, can help provide the documentation of costs and copies of death certificates.
More details are available on the agency’s website.
Q: What costs does FEMA’s funeral-aid program cover?
A: Eligible costs include transportation for up to two people to identify the deceased person, a coffin or an urn, a burial plot and headstone, arrangement of the funeral ceremony, and cremation or burial costs.
Q: Where can I find information about arranging a funeral?
State regulators also offer online information, but most do a lackluster job of giving consumers information about their rights when arranging funerals and related services, a new report finds.
Just seven states offer “excellent” access to digital information, including guidance on how to shop for a funeral provider, file a complaint and obtain details of any disciplinary actions taken by regulators, according to the analysis from the Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America. Thirty-three states provided “poor or no information,” according to the review.
The report cited state boards in Oregon and Arizona as having particularly helpful websites, with information that is “labeled plainly and placed prominently on the home page.”
California, Kansas, Minnesota, New York and Virginia also received A grades, while Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Washington state earned a B.
The findings are a cause for concern, the groups said, because consumers planning funerals are typically shopping for expensive services at a time of bereavement and often don’t know about their rights. A survey by the groups this year found that only a quarter of Americans knew that funeral homes were required by law to offer price quotes over the phone and to give shoppers a printed, itemized price list when they visited.
The groups have long pushed for a legal requirement that funeral homes post their price lists online, to make comparison shopping for services easier. The FTC is reviewing its funeral rule for possible revisions, including a requirement that funeral homes post their prices online.
The funeral rule was adopted in 1984 to protect consumers from unfair practices and needs updating to reflect widespread use of the internet, some commission members have said. The commission closed public comments on its review a year ago but has not announced any action.