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Facing both financial and personal loss, Iowans await reimbursement for COVID-19 funerals

Federal lawmakers say families could “soon” get reimbursed for funerals, but FEMA remains unclear on timetable and who's eligible.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Many families have relied on online fundraisers like GoFundMe to fund funeral expenses for loved ones who died from COVID-19.

Last May, Congressional lawmakers introduced a bill that would provide financial relief for those who lost loved ones to COVID-19 in the form of funeral reimbursement. 

The bill died in Congress, but lawmakers managed to include $2 billion in the stimulus package Congress passed on Dec. 21.

However, it may still be a while before families actually see the money. 

Jessica Koth, with the National Funeral Directors Association, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has jurisdiction over how the money is distributed.

“FEMA has to go through a rulemaking process where they determine the specifics of exactly how much is available per family,” Koth said. “All of those details, FEMA’s in the process of determining that right now. So we’re just as eagerly awaiting that information so that our members can pass that along to the families that they’re serving.”

In an email statement to Local 5, FEMA provided few specifics but noted eligible recipients will be those who incurred funeral costs prior to Dec. 31 of last year.

“FEMA is reviewing the legislation and evaluating potential options for implementation. FEMA will make assistance for eligible expenses available retroactively upon implementation,” a spokesperson said.

However, lawmakers remain hopeful the money is coming soon.

Friday, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “We finally got it done. People will soon be able to get COVID funeral costs reimbursed.”

But Koth said FEMA is still sorting out who is eligible, how much money each person receives, and what kind of documentation families will need to provide. 

Though the specifics of COVID-19 funeral relief are still being nailed down, this isn’t an entirely new concept. FEMA provided assistance to families who lost loved ones in the 9/11 disaster and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Koth acknowledged the pandemic is taking a toll on funeral directors, both financially and emotionally.

“Funeral directors want to help families during these crises, and often when there are these crises, funeral directors often discount or give away their services,” said Koth. “Financial assistance really will give families more options and be able to lay their loved ones to rest with respect and dignity.”

Laura Lundberg, of Iles Funeral Homes in Des Moines, says she looks forward to the days when she can help families carry out a proper celebration of life, with no masks or restrictions.

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“It will take time for all of us to heal,” said Lundberg. “When I go to a funeral, and the funeral is happening and I’m kind of always in the back, I can tell every single one of them is wearing a mask. Just every time I see that, it hits me emotionally. Because what a change to our society, what a change to our people. What a change to not be able to greet your friends, to hug them when they’ve lost somebody.”

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