What FEMA’s funeral reimbursements could mean for Black communities

EXCLUSIVE: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will provide up to $9,000 per funeral and will begin accepting applications on April 12

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Grieving a loved one is incredibly difficult under any circumstance. For those doing it in the midst of COVID-19, that grief is compounded by the stress of planning and paying for funeral services in a pandemic world. 

In late March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that it will provide funeral-related financial assistance to those who have lost people to COVID-19 under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations and American Rescue Plan Acts of 2021. The program will reimburse up to $9,000 per funeral and $35,500 per applicant and FEMA will begin accepting applications on April 12.

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Now over a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared its pandemic status, there’s plenty of data to show how COVID-19 has disproportionately harmed Black communities. Black Americans represent only 13 percent of the national population but are almost twice as likely to die from COVID-19 and almost three times as likely to be hospitalized by it, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

“I’ve been vaccinated but once you’ve gone through this, I don’t think there’s any going back to normal. There is a continuous struggle to cope and it takes time,” Winston L. France, a Guyana native and resident of Rosedale, Queens tells theGrio.

France lost his wife, a healthcare worker who served in a local VA hospital, to COVID-19 last May. Like many people, France was also hospitalized by the disease and thinks that FEMA’s financial assistance will help. 

In cities with large Black populations and enduring legacies of segregation, the full force of the pandemic is widely felt. In Detroit, for example, Black Americans make up over 75 percent of COVID-19 cases and 90 percent of virus-related deaths, according to the Brookings Institute. In June 2020, during one of the first waves of the virus, Black people represented 77 percent of COVID-19 cases in New Orleans

Considering the exponential toll the pandemic has taken on Black communities, families, and businesses, FEMA’s assistance could provide critical relief. For Black-owned grief service companies, the last year has been grueling as many have dealt with record numbers of COVID-related deaths and worked beyond typical business hours to provide services. 

“Families have been significantly impacted by unexpected deaths related to COVID,  particularly in communities that already had high rates of people passing because of pre-existing conditions. That was multiplied with the impact of COVID-19,” says Donavin Boyd, co-owner and CEO of The Boyd Family Funeral Home in New Orleans. 

Friends and family members pay respects to Conrad Coleman Jr. during his funeral service on July 03, 2020 in New Rochelle, New York. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

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Boyd tells theGrio that the pandemic has had a huge impact on his staff mentally, physically, emotionally, but like many small and family-owned businesses they are enduring and sticking to universal health guidelines. Since FEMA’s reimbursement program is for individuals and families, businesses are less likely to be directly affected, but Boyd says it could be especially helpful to those who had to pay funeral expenses out of pocket. 

Though the national rollout of COVID-19 vaccines like Moderna and Pfizer is encouraging, those on the frontlines like France and Boyd are imploring people to remain cautious. 

“If you’ve been through it, then you really understand the nuance of this whole thing. Following the science shows us how quickly the situation can escalate,” says France. 

“I think the main thing to walk away with right now is to continue exercising safety precautions and learn a new way of living in the future,” says Boyd. “We don’t want to have to go back to Phase 1, so we have to continue practicing safety for ourselves, families, and communities at large.” 

To be eligible for FEMA’s funeral assistance program, applicants must be U.S. citizens, non-citizen nationals or an otherwise qualified non-citizen (though the deceased do not have to be) and have proof that the death was attributed to COVID-19. 

Applicants are encouraged to keep documentation and can visit www.fema.gov to learn more. 

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