Funding available for COVID funerals; Contact 6 helps family get approved

It’s a program that refunds the families of COVID-19 victims for funeral and burial costs. However, one family dealing with unimaginable loss waited months for their approval before reaching out to FOX6.

You can’t measure the cost of a life lost to the coronavirus. At a private mass in June of 2020, the seven Trujillo children said goodbye to both of their parents.

Marcelino Trujillo had been hospitalized nearly one month when his children got an urgent call from hospital staff.

"Your dad got worse we had to intubate him," recalls Cirenia Murillo, Trujillo’s daughter. "Within three to four hours, my dad passed away."

One week later, the family got more devastating news just three hours before Marcelino Trujillo’s funeral was to begin. Their mother, Josefina Trujillo, had also died from COVID-19.

"My dad didn’t know Mama was intubated," said Murillo. "We kind of wanted to keep it that way. He thought she was doing better and better. Obviously, my mom never found out my dad passed away."

The family postponed Marcelino Trujillo’s burial to hold a joint mass at St. Hyacinth Church for the couple married 56 years.

"It’s very sad to lose your parents. It’s sad to lose one parent, not alone two," said Murillo. "I think that what comforts us is that they went together."

Cirenia Murillo

Memories matter more than money, but money became an issue months after the Trujillos’ deaths, when Congress appropriated $2 billion to FEMA for COVID-19 funeral assistance. To date, FEMA has sent $1.33 billion to applicants across the country.

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To be eligible for the funding, the death had to occur in the United States and be a direct result of COVID-19. The funeral must have taken place after Jan. 20, 2020 and the applicant incurred the costs.

The applicant must be a U.S. citizen over the age of 18. The maximum benefit is $9,000 per funeral.

To qualify, the death certificate must list COVID-19 as the cause of death. If the death occurred early in the pandemic, FEMA is accepting alternative documentation, such as statements from attending physicians.

Murillo immediately applied for the FEMA funeral assistance in April of 2021 when the program went live. She submitted 36 pages of documentation. Murillo says her parents did not have life insurance to cover their funeral costs, calling them "old-fashioned."

A FEMA spokesperson tells Contact 6 it usually takes "three to five weeks for an application to be processed". By the time Murillo wrote to FOX6, she’d been waiting six months for approval.

"What started worrying me is, I started getting phone calls and text messages saying, "your information has not been received," said Murillo.

Contact 6 exchanged emails with FEMA about Murillo’s application. Soon after, she was approved for the maximum benefit per parent: a total of $18,000.

"We really are doing whatever we can to make people eligible for this benefit," said Dan Shulman, external affairs specialist for FEMA Region 5.

Dan Shulman

Shulman doesn’t anticipate a problem with FEMA continuing to fund COVID-19 funerals as long as there’s need. He says approving the applications can take some time because it’s being done manually to ensure they "get this right."

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As of November 10th, FEMA had awarded more than $22.2 million to Wisconsinites eligible for COVID-19 funeral expenses. FEMA had received 4,963 applications from people in Wisconsin and approved 3,392. The average amount awarded in Wisconsin was about $6,500.

FEMA determined 138 applications from Wisconsin to be ineligible.

At Paradise Funeral Home in Milwaukee, Dr. Camelia Clarke has assisted dozens of families by submitting detailed statements to FEMA for coverage.

"All of the families that I’m aware of, that have applied, have received a reimbursement," said Clarke.

Clarke says FEMA’s funeral assistance has covered memorial services, transportation, burials, receptions, embalming, flowers and more.

FEMA says there’s no deadline for applications but Shulman is encouraging people to apply as soon as possible.

"With over 700,000 deaths from this terrible pandemic, there are a lot of people out there who have yet to apply for this benefit," said Shulman.

Contact 6 tagged along with Murillo as she visited her parents’ graves one night in early October. Wooden crosses mark her parents’ plots as the family is still waiting for their tombstones to arrive.

A bench next to the graves is inscribed with "Trujillo" and gives their children a place to sit during longer visits.

"At the beginning, it was just hard," said Murillo, of visiting her parents. "I think I just wanted more answers, like, why? And why both together?"

Standing near the Trujillos’ graves, it suddenly seemed wrong to talk about money, when their daughter would give just about anything for more time with her parents.

"There is no amount of money that anybody can give me, I would have my parents here in a minute," said Murillo.