Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives to COVID-19 leaving behind loves ones to plan funerals with expensive bills. A new program from the Federal Emergency Management Agency hopes to help people cover those costs.
FEMA's COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program allows residents nationwide to apply for financial help if a loved one died in the U.S. and their death was attributed to COVID-19.
"Many families have gone through a lot this year," said Randy Anderson, a board member at the National Funeral Directors Association. "That's not going to replace the grief or anything they've suffered, but it will help them financially."
In some cases, people had almost no time to plan when their family members tested positive for COVID-19. Natalie Sweeny and her father Warren said they were shocked when he tested positive.
"We looked at each other and said what? Are you sure?" said Sweeny. "He was the definition of the dad and the husband that we all want."
Her father passed away five days after he tested positive at the age of 78. Because of the pandemic, the service was held at home and streamed to family members. Now they're waiting on a tombstone. Even with a private service, it cost the family $12,000.
"I know it doesn't fix anything, but the FEMA program helps a little bit in these times," said Kori Truesdale, director and manager of Featheringill Mortuary in San Diego.
Truesdale manages the four-generation family business. The mortuary has been operating since 1962, and he says he had never seen a death rate like this.
"I had someone whose mother and father both passed away from COVID within a couple of weeks," said Truesdale. "Hearing their story, it puts it all in a whole new light."
While the entire last year has been busy, Truesdale says it didn't peak until the start of 2021.
"When January, February came around that's when we saw the real spike in numbers," said Truesdale. "I've never been stressed in this job in the last 18 years until January."
He said he wants to make sure each family got the care they deserve.
"A big part of it has been dealing with the families, helping them through the process," said Truesdale. "Funerals are about getting people together and sharing memories, paying respects. When you can't do that, what is a funeral?"
Services have had to change because of the pandemic. Truesdale says most of the time it is just family and friends meeting at the gravesite instead of a traditional indoor service. That might reduce the cost a bit, but it is still an expensive process.
"It's the family's job and the family has to do the work," said Truesdale. "They have to apply for that reimbursement for the funds that they already paid for the funeral."
Under the FEMA program, the family itself has to apply for the reimbursement. The mortuary cannot apply for you.
There are some documents that will be required to be submitted. Truesdale says you must show a medical record or death certificate that lists COVID-19 as the cause of death.
To try and help people with the expenses, Featheringill plans to contact everyone who they helped this last year.
"Just the other day we went through all of our charts for the past year and two months," said Truesdale. "We're going to send out emails to everyone."