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The U.S. has now recorded more than 1 million deaths from COVID-19, and the federal government has paid out more than $2 billion to cover funeral costs for COVID victims. But there are still potentially hundreds of thousands of people eligible for the benefits who haven't applied for them. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Two caskets - one silver, one white - sit by holes in the ground. It's a small graveside service on a humid afternoon in the town of Travelers Rest, S.C.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Some bright morning when this life is over...
FARMER: Through tears, the family sings "I'll Fly Away." They'd lost a mom and dad - grandmother and grandfather - both to COVID.
ALLISON LEAVER: They died five days apart.
FARMER: They were Allison Leaver's parents. This was mid-2020. It was a crushing tragedy, and there was no life insurance or burial policy.
LEAVER: We just figured we were just going to have to put it on our credit cards and pay it off. And that was how we're going to deal with that. So...
FARMER: But then, in April of last year, FEMA started offering to reimburse funeral expenses up to $9,000, which is roughly the average cost of a funeral. And it was retroactive. So Leaver says she applied ASAP.
LEAVER: If this horrible thing had to happen, at least we weren't going to be out the cash for it.
FARMER: FEMA launched a big call center because everyone has to call to initiate the process. Leaver started assembling the death certificates and receipts from the funeral home and cemetery. She uploaded them and heard nothing for months. Eventually, she called and learned the receipts she submitted had different signatures - one from her husband, another from her sister. That was a problem. And even though it was a joint funeral, to get the full amount per parent, she had to have separate receipts. It was frustrating, but she got it done.
LEAVER: I was like, I'm going to get that money come hell or high water. It's just - that's just what's going to happen.
FARMER: Clerical challenges have discouraged some participation, especially for those with deaths from early in the pandemic, says Jaclyn Rothenberg, FEMA's chief spokesperson.
JACLYN ROTHENBERG: Some people with death certificates didn't necessarily have COVID listed as the cause of death. And we do have a responsibility to our taxpayer stewards to make sure that that is, in fact, the cause.
FARMER: But Rothenberg says FEMA is trying to work with everyone. Even though the agency has spent nearly all the $2 billion initially budgeted, Rothenberg says there's a new pot of stimulus funding. We analyzed FEMA's data compared to COVID fatalities. States with the highest participation are clustered in the South. But even there, more than a third still haven't applied. Some Western states, including Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Arizona, have had just 1 in 3 participate, and most people are eligible. One of the few disqualifiers is if someone prepaid for their funeral.
FEMA is launching an ad campaign to get the word out, but they're also leaning on community groups connected to those who need to know about the money. Chris Kocher started COVID Survivors for Change.
CHRIS KOCHER: We were able to connect people to some of the survivors who had been through that process already so - to just help them walk through it.
FARMER: Many just need someone to do it for them. Stephanie Smith of Carlisle, Ky., lost her father to COVID. Her mother, who was 83 at the time, had no chance.
STEPHANIE SMITH: She's a very smart, spunky lady, but she's never used a computer.
FARMER: At a minimum, it requires scanning or faxing.
SMITH: She probably would not have attempted to do it because the whole process just would have been overwhelming for her.
FARMER: But Smith was able to jump through the hoops without much trouble, and $9,000, she says, is enough to make life considerably easier as her mom adjusts to being a COVID widow.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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