In this Saturday, April 18, 2020 file photo, mortician Cordarial O. Holloway, foreground left, funeral director Robert L. Albritten, foreground right, place a casket into a hearse in Dawson, Ga.
( AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega, and you're listening to The Takeaway. January has been the deadliest month of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States so far. Nearly 80,000 people died over the past few weeks, bringing the country's total death toll to more than 425,000. That incalculable loss has left so many families grieving.
On top of that grief, it's left families struggling to cover the costs associated with those deaths too, namely, burials and cremations, but relief could be on the way for some families with federal funding for COVID-19 funeral costs being allocated in the December stimulus package that was passed by Congress. For more on that, I'm joined by Tanya Marsh, a professor at Wake Forest School of Law and host of Death, et seq, a podcast about death care and the laws around it. Tanya, thanks for joining me.
Tanya Marsh: Thank you so much for having me.
Tanzina: One of the things that I don't think is top of mind for a lot of people when they lose a family member or loved one is how much it's going to cost. What's the average cost of dying in the United States today?
Tanya: Well, that's a really good question. We know that what it was pre-COVID was about $8,500, but of course, that varies significantly from place to place. In a market like New York City, it's going to be understandably more expensive than it would be in a smaller community elsewhere in the United States. Then, on top of that $8,500, you have the cost of any burial. That would include the cost of the grave itself, opening and closing the grave, which are service charges that are incurred at the time of need. You can easily be over $10,000.
Tanzina: I've heard the $10,000 figure a lot and that seems to be regardless of the type of funeral home, that's even at the lower levels, I'm hearing from friends and family. Tanya, why are funeral costs so expensive?
Tanya: There's a lot of goods and services that go into those funeral costs. You're getting the services of a funeral director, and they do an awful lot of things behind the scenes that grieving people don't want to deal with or can't deal with, or it's legally, logistically difficult for them to deal with, mundane things like getting the death certificate submitted and dealing with the paperwork with the state, getting something called a burial transit permit, which is necessary for final disposition. They also deal with coming and taking the body from the place where death occurred, cleaning it up, and making it presentable in a way that is socially acceptable for us, I suppose, to let our deceased loved ones go.
Tanzina: The federal government has been involved in this. In some ways, representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez co-introduced a bill back in spring 2020 to provide financial assistance for funeral expenses. That bill itself is stalled, but she and other members of Congress were able to get some financial relief into the stimulus package that, we mentioned at the top, was approved at the end of 2020. Tanya, what is in that package that will help grieving families?
Tanya: Right. In the December 2020 stimulus package, there was $2 billion allocated for FEMA to distribute as funeral assistance as part of their typical way that they disperse money for disaster assistance. FEMA is actually in the process of the rulemaking for that. There's a lot that we don't know about how that money will be allocated. We do know that the FEMA spokesperson has said that it will only be available for funeral expenses that were incurred prior to December 31st of last year. I don't know if with respect to funerals that take place in 2021, whether or not that would require additional funding or if that's something that FEMA has the authority to do under that prior bill.
Tanzina: Does it look like there's a lot of red tape for families right now who are looking to get some of those resources?
Tanya: If you look at, historically, the disaster funeral assistance rules that FEMA has adopted, there's not a ton of red tape. This is a different kind of disaster, right? The documentation, I suppose, that would be required is going to be less difficult for people to obtain for deaths due to COVID than, say, a hurricane or other natural disaster, which may have wiped away people's homes and made documentation really difficult to get.
I will say that one of the potential hang-ups is that, in general, the FEMA Disaster Funeral Assistance Program will only pay families for unmet funeral needs. That is that they're not being covered by veterans assistance benefits, social security, or even personal income and savings. I know that the folks who proposed this to Congress keep referring to it as a reimbursement, but that's not typically how the FEMA Disaster Funeral Assistance Program works, so whether or not they're going to change it for COVID-related deaths remains to be seen.
Tanzina: Tanya, you mentioned FEMA assistance in the past, what about something called the Stafford Act? What is that?
Tanya: The Stafford Act is basically enabling legislation that defines the limits of FEMA assistance and talks about some of the programs that they can engage in. The Stafford Act doesn't really say anything particular about funeral assistance and what character that might take. It gives FEMA the flexibility to set up programs that are responsive to a particular disaster.
Tanzina: We've been talking about the financial hardship that some families will face when trying to really bury their loved ones and have end-of-life celebrations for them because that can be very costly, but there's another side to this, which are the funeral directors, the people who work in funeral homes, who themselves have been overwhelmed with demand, some going so far as to do things that may not be appropriate, storing bodies that they don't have the capacity to store because they just feel overwhelmed and want to do what they can. Is there any relief for them?
Tanya: I suppose that this $2 billion, if it's all spent on funeral expenses, will be going to the funeral directors. I think part of the unevenness of this as a response to their need is that I know, anecdotally, a lot of funeral directors simply knocked down the cost.
When faced with families who had financial need, even though funeral directors have experienced increased costs themselves, some had to go as far as get refrigerated trucks, et cetera, to sit outside, and then, of course, the PPE and other sorts of protection for themselves from a virus that is continues to be communicable after death. If FEMA's going to follow the same playbook that they have in the past, that's not going to really be able to compensate funeral directors fully for their costs to the extent that they wrote-off some of those costs because families were struggling in 2020.
Tanzina: Tanya, is this a moment to rethink the funeral industry moving forward?
Tanya: Oh, I think that we need to fundamentally rethink a great deal about the relationship between the government and what is essentially a privatized system for handling and disposing of the dead. We have a private funeral industry. We have a private cemetery industry, and then, of course, more than half of Americans are cremated now that is also entirely privatized.
One thing that I think we've really seen in New York City and we've seen in Los Angeles in recent weeks is how rigid the system is. The private market, when it is subject to a great deal of regulation, whether that regulation is reasonable or not, cannot nimbly respond to great increases in demand, and we have a very static, rigid system. If the government isn't going to be able to step in and help out in these situations, and so far, it hasn't, then I think we do need to look at ways to make the private industry able to respond better.
Tanzina: Tanya Marsh is a professor at Wake Forest School of Law and host of Death, et seq, a podcast about death care in the United States. Tanya, thanks for joining us.
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