Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Molly Gorny.
Many states offer payments to families to help them cover the cost of funerals, and some of the amounts are on the rise.
The funds are only available to people with low incomes, and sometimes the amount isn’t enough to cover the full cost of funerals. But the money can be a help — if families know about it. Too often, they don’t.
To remedy that, states, cities and the federal government this year are mounting advertising and public relations campaigns to get the word out.
New York City, which recently increased the amount of money available, has produced a glossy brochure that it is handing out anywhere residents sign up for food stamps or other aid. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has posted a nine-minute video on its website and mounted a paid advertising campaign in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, large states with a high number of COVID-19 deaths. And the agency has held roundtables with publications focused on African American, Hispanic and Asian American/Pacific Islander communities.
About 20 states offer cash for funeral or burial expenses, ranging from a few hundred dollars in many states to $2,500 in Alaska. Other states defer to counties, where assistance is generally in the hundreds of dollars, according to Funeralwise.com, a consumer site that includes a directory of funeral services and products, such as urns, for sale.
“We get a lot of inquiries that are so heartbreaking,” said Molly Gorny, director of content for Funeralwise. “They say ‘My son just died yesterday; I don’t have money to bury him.’”
Eligibility for the money in most cities and states is based on income. But other funeral aid is available if the deceased died from a specific cause, such as COVID-19 or a violent crime.
As a result of the pandemic, several locations including New York City, Connecticut and New Jersey have increased the amounts available.
Funeral costs vary by state. The price of a typical funeral ranges from about $6,700 in Mississippi to $15,000 in Hawaii, according to World Population Review, a demographic research group. Cremations usually cost thousands less, averaging $2,200 for a simple cremation without embalming or a visitation service first, according to the consumer site funeralocity.com.
The site includes a directory of states that offer assistance and information on how to claim it. Along with funds for families with low incomes, it lists resources such as victim’s assistance funds. In California, for example, the Victim Compensation Board, which oversees compensation to victims of violent crime and collection of restitution from offenders, may pay up to $7,500 for funeral expenses after the family pays what it can afford.
Jessica Koth, spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association, noted that in many states, it is funeral homes that apply for the government assistance. In Wisconsin, for example, a funeral home can apply for reimbursement from the state of up to $1,500. But in many places, families apply directly.
Illinois will pay up to $1,370 for a funeral or $686 for a cremation and burial. In New York City, the maximum is $3,400. In Massachusetts, the bereaved can get state assistance of up to $1,100 toward a funeral, burial or cremation that costs no more than $3,500, and some counties will supplement that amount. And in Maryland, the aid totals about $650.
According to the 2021 National Funeral Directors Association price list study, the median cost of a funeral has increased 6.6% over the past five years to $7,848, and the median cost of a funeral with cremation has increased 11.3% over the past five years to $6,970.
Last year, New York City increased its maximum payment from $1,700 to $3,400 due to increasing costs and the unprecedented impact of COVID-19, according to the city’s Office of Burial Services. Applicants must show proof of a low income, such as eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income.
Several years ago, Connecticut increased its payment by $150 to $1,350.
FEMA has given away more than $2 billion in funeral assistance for COVID-19 victims since the start of the pandemic, paying out a maximum of $9,000 per death. That aid went to friends and relatives of more than 300,000 victims. At the same time, the agency announced last spring it was mounting a public relations campaign to increase awareness about the program.
“Our new outreach campaign is designed to reach families, especially across underserved communities, where the cost of a funeral can be a financial burden to a loved one,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said in a news release.
New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this year signed a bill to increase funeral, burial and cremation aid by $8 million. According to the legislation, the basic benefit is $2,770, which can be used for services costing up to $4,340.
However, the legislation summary points out that the average cost of funeral and cemetery charges in New Jersey is $15,268.
Victoria Haneman, a law professor at Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, Nebraska, who has researched death, dying and the funeral industry, advises advance planning, not just for wills and estates, but for funeral expenses as well.
“The reality is that when a relative dies in a family, the first thing people are not thinking about is the economics of death,” she said. “If they did, we would have a more informed consumer.”