Duena Parker was comforted to learn the federal government would help pay for bereavement costs related to COVID-19, but so far, she’s received nothing but headaches trying to receive the aid.
In April, FEMA launched a funeral assistance program to help cover expenses including burial plots, cremation and clergy services for families who lost a loved one from COVID-19.
Parker, a substitute teacher from Murfreesboro, said she called the first day applications opened. Although the initial consultation went smoothly, Parker said she’s called another dozen times to resolve issues regarding her mother’s death certificate and expense receipts.
Weeks later, she’s still unsure if her application has been approved. “You put in the paperwork. You do everything they ask and then there’s no communication from them,” she said.
Parker isn’t the only person finding the federal aid cumbersome to obtain. Over 5,000 families in Tennessee have applied for the funeral assistance and as of Monday, a little over 300 have been approved. Across the country, tens of thousands of people are also waiting for an answer.
FEMA told WPLN News that the review process is long in part because each document needs to be examined by a case worker. Although the agency has offered similar aid in the past for other natural disasters, the COVID-19 relief program is the largest funeral assistance endeavor they’ve ever managed, FEMA said. On the first day of the program, the agency received over 1 million calls on its hotline.
In just the past two weeks, FEMA has approved roughly 286 applicants in Tennessee. While there’s been some progress toward distributing the federal money, many families continue to toil under the radar.
Parker said she didn’t receive an update until a representative called to deny her claim. Parker then had to spent weeks trying to prove her mother died of the virus. She was finally able to resolve that issue last month, but recently ran into another issue regarding proof that she paid for her mother’s casket.
After Parker lost her mother in January, she and her family paid entirely out of pocket to cover bereavement costs that totaled $15,000. “The main thing is my brother wiped out his savings for it,” she said, adding that her brother is expecting a child soon.
For Bob Stangenberg from Carthage the wait doesn’t bother him as much as the confusion and uncertainty around the application.
Stangenberg lost his wife in December. When he applied for the aid in April, Stangenberg said he wasn’t given the option upload his paperwork online (though the application itself is not available online).
“She never mentioned the upload or I would’ve done that,” he said.
Instead, Stangenberg said he’s been faxing all the necessary documents because he believed it was the fastest choice. Several weeks later, Stangenberg still hasn’t heard back if he’s been approved.
“It hasn’t been a terribly long time. I know they’re dealing with a lot,” Stangenberg said. “I’m not impatient. It’s just the not knowing.”
You can apply for FEMA’s funeral assistance program by calling 844-684-6333, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Central Time, Monday through Friday. As of June, there’s no deadline to apply.