The federal government is reimbursing Americans for COVID-19 funeral expenses, an unprecedented program that could send more than $50 million to Colorado bank accounts beginning this week.
The government will cover up to $9,000 in funeral and burial expenses, including travel, for people who died of COVID-19 after Jan. 20, 2020, unless the funeral was paid for in advance. There are no income requirements or restrictions, so Coloradans of all social classes are eligible.
“It’s a huge reimbursement,” said Kendra Briggs, CEO of Fairmount Funeral Home in Denver. “… I got a call from one woman who had lost her husband and she was so relieved. She had lost a spouse, so half the Social Security is gone now and the couple didn’t plan for life insurance.”
Phone lines at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the program, were overloaded April 12, the first day applications were accepted. FEMA has since hired more people to handle the roughly 20,000 to 25,000 calls it receives daily, according to the agency.
“The funeral assistance program is historic, not only in the breathtaking scope and magnitude of the program itself, but because of the historic personal losses suffered by so many of our citizens,” FEMA Deputy Director for Individual Assistance Matt Redding said.
It’s common for FEMA to reimburse Americans for funeral expenses after a disaster, such as hurricanes and tornadoes. But since FEMA’s creation in 1979, there have never been this many deaths — about 570,000 nationwide and 6,400 in Colorado due to COVID.
About 120,000 applications were received in the first eight days of this year’s program, according to Redding.
“While no amount of money can heal the loss of a loved one, this grant program can help ease the financial strain on Coloradans who’ve suffered so much from COVID-19,” U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Lafayette Democrat, said in a statement.
After Briggs first heard about it, her company sent a letter to past customers who had buried a loved one due to COVID. “They didn’t know about it. They were like, ‘What?’” she recalled.
“I couldn’t believe it wasn’t better advertised. Remember when everybody got the stimulus checks, how advertised that was? This is just like a secret,” Briggs said.
One customer of hers lost two people to COVID, making them eligible for $18,000. A woman whose husband died of the virus will now be able to afford a headstone, according to Briggs. But there are exceptions: One local family Briggs worked with cannot be reimbursed because they pre-planned a funeral through a trust.
More families chose cremations and simple burials over funerals last year due to restrictions on how many people could attend a funeral in-person, statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association show. That kept costs below $9,000 for some, Briggs said, “but if you had a full burial and didn’t own (cemetery) property, you could use the full $9,000 easily.”
To receive funeral reimbursement, the person who paid for it must have a death certificate that states the death was due to COVID-19. Applicants must be a U.S. citizen or legal resident and the deceased must have died within the U.S. or an American territory. But there is no requirement the deceased be American.
Redding declined to predict how long it will take FEMA to process the hundreds of thousands of applications it expects to receive. But he stressed that family members who are still grieving loved ones should not feel hurried.
“There is no rush,” he told reporters Wednesday. “That’s something we want folks to understand: There is absolutely no rush to apply, because there is no (time) limit.”