WINDSOR TERRACE — It’s a feeling too many of us know all too well: the devastating loss of a loved one, compounded by the financial burden of thousands of dollars in funeral expenses.
For many parishioners at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Corona, Queens, that time may have come unexpectedly, in the middle of a pandemic, when jobs were already lost, and final good-byes to loved ones happened virtually, if they happened at all. Nearly 100 people in the Our Lady of Sorrows parish community have died as a result of COVID-19.
Father Manuel de Jesus Rodriguez, Our Lady of Sorrows pastor, is urging his congregation to sign up for a new federal program that provides financial assistance to people who have been hit hard in the pocketbook by tragedy.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has rolled out a COVID-19 Funeral Assistance program that offers up to $9,000 per funeral to reimburse families for expenses in cases of COVID-19 deaths that occurred after Jan. 20, 2020.
“The initiative is certainly a blessing and we welcome it with open arms because this is a direct support, and direct benefit, that these families will be taking advantage of and it would be helping them to move forward. Many of them are still jobless and this will be so helpful,” Father Rodriguez said.
The program began accepting applications on April 12. Reimbursement checks can cover several costs associated with a funeral, including the burial plot, casket, headstone, clergy services, and transfer of remains.
At St. Brigid Church in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the feeling of loss is also palpable — approximately 100 parishioners have died of the deadly coronavirus.
St. Brigid pastor Father Carlos Velásquez, said he plans to get the word out about the availability of the FEMA funds.
“We’re ready to help the parishioners anyway we can. I’ll even help people fill out the application myself,” Father Velásquez said.
Senator Charles Schumer and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez held a press conference in Corona Plaza on April 12 to tout the new program, which Schumer said can provide a sense of closure for grieving families.
“It’s just gut-wrenching to realize that there are thousands of people, bodies, lying in morgues not being buried properly,” he said. “It’s one of the many, many, many problems average people face — poor people, working people — with this COVID disaster.”
Ocasio-Cortez said the FEMA initiative is important because it ensures that undocumented immigrants, many of whom are essential workers and struggling financially, are not shut out.
“This is one of the first programs that will allow mixed-status and undocumented families to get some semblance of relief after feeding this country, cleaning our schools, serving and holding this community up,” she said.
FEMA has set up a toll-free number, 844-684-6333, which is open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST. On the day the program opened, FEMA received one million calls from people looking to apply for funding.
The government has put $2 billion into the reimbursement fund. The money was allocated through two pieces of legislation — the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense grief for so many people,” FEMA Administrator Bob Fenton said in a statement. “Although we cannot change what has happened, we affirm our commitment to help with funeral and burial expenses that many families did not anticipate.”