May 21—MADISON COUNTY — When the federal government announced it would take applications for funeral reimbursement, local funeral homes made it their business to get that information to clients.
"We went through all our death certificates from Jan. 20, 2020," said Rob Loose, president of Loose Funeral Homes & Crematory.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency began taking applications April 12. To be eligible, an applicant must have paid funeral expenses after Jan. 20, 2020, for someone who had COVID-19 listed as the cause of death on the death certificate. An applicant must have already paid the funeral expenses and not still owe on the bill.
The Paycheck Protection Program is another source of assistance during the pandemic that has helped local funeral homes and, by extension, the families they serve. The program works as a loan, which can be forgiven if businesses provide documentation that the money was spent on payroll and other business expenses.
"It was very beneficial," Loose said. "We didn't have to lay off any staff. We were having fewer services, so some of our part-time people didn't work as much."
The biggest challenge to his business during the pandemic, Loose said, was the limitations placed on attendance.
"During the height of the pandemic, we weren't really allowed to do much," he said. "We couldn't have large services. Some people still have not scheduled their celebration-of-life services. Some people were upset because they were unable to say goodbye.
"While we were following mandates from the state and county, it felt like we were somewhat letting people down," Loose said. "The mandates are there for a purpose, so you do your best."
With so many unexpected deaths during the pandemic, Loose said that he sometimes relied on available assistance from Medicaid and the township trustees, which have a fund available to help with funeral expenses.
With many people being laid off, without funds or insurance, Loose said he has offered a minimal service that costs nothing to the family.
"We have a service that costs absolutely nothing," Loose said. "We take exactly what the trustee or Medicaid gives us and don't charge the family."
Todd Bozell of Hersberger-Bozell Funeral Home in Lapel said that he also set out to get his clients informed of the assistance available to them through FEMA.
"We went through all of our deaths that were COVID deaths, and we sent a letter out to all of our families explaining that relief was available," Bozell said.
Bozell also posted notices in the foyers and hallways of his building with instructions on how to apply for the FEMA money.
"It's what we do," he said. "We care for people."
With payroll protection and most of his clients having prearranged insurance, Bozell said that his business wasn't greatly impacted by the pandemic.
"Our biggest challenge through all of COVID was the size of funerals," he said. "We had to sit across from people and tell them that only 10 people can come. That was tough."
To better accommodate families, his staff often made arrangements for family members and friends to enter in shifts rather than all at once.
"Families were very understanding," Bozell said. "The challenge is when someone has seven kids, they're all married and they have kids. How do you tell them only 10 people are allowed in the building?"
In cases where a family can't afford the unexpected funeral expense, Bozell said there are several options.
"We do our research," he said. "We can call Medicaid to pay up to $1,200 for a funeral. The second option is to call the township trustee, or just to adjust the service options."
Ned Dunnichay of Dunnichay Funeral Home in Elwood found himself helping families in their efforts to get death certificates updated to list COVID-19 as a cause of death.
"We had some families contact us who had a loved one having other symptoms in the hospital, and the doctor didn't put COVID on the death certificate," Dunnichay said. "We've tried to help them get the death certificates changed."
Like many of his colleagues in the funeral business, Dunnichay said the biggest challenge was arranging services with COVID-19 mandates in place.
"The biggest thing was monitoring the number of people (in attendance)," he said. "The public was understanding about the situation."
Although funeral directors in larger metropolitan areas have struggled to keep up with the volume of deaths, Dunnichay said that his business hasn't changed much.
"Here in Madison County, I think we have a lot of good funeral directors and funeral homes," he said. "We have the Madison County Funeral Directors Association. During this time, we bounce suggestions to each other, and try to provide the best service possible."