PORTLAND, Tenn. (WTVF) — More than 4,400 Tennesseans have applied for FEMA's COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program in its first month, but just seven have received any money from the fund.
The program was created to reimburse families for some funeral costs for loved ones who died of COVID-19 after January 20, 2020. The project opened applications in April and was immediately flooded with applicants. One of those applicants was Stephanie Brayman, whose mother died of the virus in March.
"It's a challenge to realize she's gone," she explained. "We have a hard time accepting that it's real, and here we are almost two months later."
"Her life was cut short. it was stolen basically by COVID. She had many more years left, she was only 68 years old," Brayman continued.
Her mother's funeral was small -- just a tent and some chairs in an outside ceremony.
"My mom was an Elvis fan so we played the Elvis gospel songs," Brayman explained.
But the bill anything but small.
"You still have to have a casket, they want to put you in a vault, do you want to pay $2,000 to be embalmed? It's a costly event, dying is expensive," she said, adding that the intimate ceremony ended up costing around $15,000.
That's why Brayman applied for FEMA's COVID-19 Funeral Assistance program on the first day she could, and was shocked to hear that only seven Tennesseans have received money. It's a number that is smaller than most other states, even some that have fewer total applicants.
"That is a shockingly low number," Brayman said, adding that she still doesn't even know if she is eligible for the program. "I mean of course it's frustrating because you're recovering from the financial strain and like I said, we're pushing $15,000 for one funeral that was not extravagant."
She says her family can get by, but she worries about others who may be struggling while they wait on reimbursements or may have trouble navigating a long and sometimes complicated application for an important program.
"For people to have to absorb that unexpected cost, it has to be devastating to some families, like literally devastating."
NewsChannel 5 reached out to FEMA to ask about the funeral assistance program and a local spokesperson responded to our questions via email. When asked why such a low number of Tennessee applicants had actually received money, the spokesperson wrote:
"Under FEMA’s COVID-19 Funeral Assistance, applicants start their claim with a phone call. They are then sent a letter in which they have 90 days to respond and submit all of the required documentation to determine eligibility. Applications can only be processed after all required documentation is received and verified. The process to review applications is a solely a manual process between FEMA and the applicant. FEMA staff are working diligently to process completed applications. No state and/or applicant is given preferential treatment. Reviews are based on which files contain the necessary documentation and are processed in the order they are received. FEMA continually balances processing assistance as quickly as possible while also ensuring the necessary reviews are conducted."
HOW TO APPLY:
Tennesseans who may be eligible for the funeral assistance benefit can begin the registration process by calling FEMA’s COVID-19 funeral assistance phone number, 844-684-6333 (For Text Telephone - TTY: 800-462-7585), between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.
FEMA says it's not accepting online applications for the benefit, so you have to call FEMA’s COVID-19 funeral assistance phone number to register and begin the process. The agency says an applicant may apply for multiple deceased individuals with a maximum allowable amount of $9,000 per funeral, and a maximum of $35,500 per application. Click here for more information.