‘A major relief’: Locals react to FEMA’s new funeral cost reimbursement program

RICHLAND, Wash — When her “funny, really smart, and spontaneous” mom, Anita, passed away in May 2020 due to the coronavirus, Patricia Martinez-Rice and her family were devastated.

They had just mourned the loss of their murdered nephew and were helping one of Patricia’s daughters with her ongoing cancer treatment, all while dealing with a global pandemic.

The last thing they wanted to focus on was more financial costs for a proper funeral.

“She had a really good heart, and even though she was only 4’9″, when she walked into a room it was like she was 10 feet tall,” Martinez-Rice said.

Anita, 65, started having COVID-19 symptoms in April when she decided to quarantine herself in her car for two weeks as to not infect first responders or other family members who came to check up on her.

Weeks passed and her health continued to decline, so doctors who had put Anita on a ventilator decided to move her from the Tri-Cities to a hospital in Portland.

“Seeing her like that was just hard and she fought for 26 days on life support,” Martinez-Rice said.

She was lovingly known to many Tri-Citians as the “Walmart Lady” after working for the company for 25 years.

A GoFundMe started by the Martinez-Rice family received thousands of dollars in donations from locals who recognized Anita from their trips to the store.

“Even though my mom worked there for years, her insurance didn’t offer her any funeral coverage and that part was irritating too,” Martinez-Rice said.

So when she heard about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) new financial assistance program from social media in April 2021, she was curious.

“It cost us about $5,000 at the funeral home and that was just for cremation, not an actual service,” Martinez-Rice said. “That’s not counting the flowers, the drive-by viewing that we had outside the home, or paying for the Zoom video. My mom’s funeral was on Zoom.”

Members of the Martinez-Rice family all had to chip in for the service because “if we hadn’t pulled together, my mom wouldn’t have had a service at all.”

“It all happened so fast that we just had to go with it and now knowing that money could be put back into my kids’ savings and also put into getting my mom the proper urn is a major relief,” Martinez-Rice said.

Holley Sowards, the service and operations manager for Einan’s at Sunset, a funeral home in Richland, said she’s empathetic for all of the people who’ve been forced to say goodbye to family members in this last year.

“Our hearts are with, not only the families we have served, but everyone in this community who is grieving the death of a loved one or friend due to the pandemic,” Sowards said. “While this assistance cannot take away their pain and grief, it will make a tremendous difference by enabling them to meaningfully honor the life of their loved one and lay them to rest with dignity.”

Sowards noted that many families in the Tri-Cities community who have experienced loss due to COVID-19 have either postponed or held off on the celebration of life that their loved one deserved due to the high costs.

“The neat thing about this program is it will help for past expenses and also future expenses should families feel safe enough now to gather and celebrate,” Sowards said.

Mindy Magnes, the bookkeeper for Einan’s at Sunset, said being able to help others out feels “very nice.”

“We had a hard time because we couldn’t help out families like they needed to be,” Magnes said. “Then FEMA came out with this.”

According to Sowards, a funeral can cost anywhere between $2,500 to $10,000 dollars. Members who apply for the program are potentially eligible for up to $9,000 dollars in funeral expense reimbursement.

Under the recently passed Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, FEMA was authorized to disperse money for COVID-related funeral expenses for deaths after January 20, 2020.

The person who paid or will be paying for the funeral services has to apply and provide documents of proof including the death certificate with the cause of death being COVID-19, funeral invoices and receipts showing payment.

Sowards said while you are asked to provide gross household income, it doesn’t affect eligibility for the program.

To apply, call this dedicated toll-free phone number at 1-844-684-6333 to get a COVID-19 Funeral Assistance application completed with help from FEMA’s representatives from Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET. Multilingual services will be available.

For their list of FAQ and specific eligibility details, click here.

You can also call Mindy Magnes with Einan’s at Sunset for local assistance at 509-943-1114 from Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PST.