By Jessica Easthope
Jennifer Perez is in nursing school hoping to become one of the people who helped her dad, Gabriel, in the final days of his battle with COVID-19.
“It just feels like it’s not real,” Jennifer said. “I still believe I’ll still see him walking around. But he’s gone, so it’s been really tough to be honest.”
After Gabriel’s death on March 22, Jennifer and her family were devastated. Financially, her dad’s death was taking an unimaginable toll: costing $12,000 for his cremation.
“We just put whatever we had together to give him a proper goodbye,” Jennifer said. “It was a lot. Some friends were helping us with money.”
When FEMA’s COVID-19 Funeral Reimbursement plan rolled out, they started gathering receipts, contracts and Gabriel’s death certificate.
“Getting all the paperwork is like reliving the situation again,” Jennifer said. “It makes it more real that he’s gone.”
But Jennifer is not alone.
“Whether it happened recently or a year ago, you still have to look for their name, see the time of death, the cause of death, where and everything,” said Katherin Matute, the FEMA case manager at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Corona, Queens. “You’re basically reliving that moment.”
The church had at least 100 parishioners die of COVID-19. Katherin is only 17-years-old but the church pastor, Father Manuel de Jesus Rodriguez, is trusting her with a big responsibility.
“Katherin is perfectly bilingual. She’s a perfect fit for this. She’s very personable, a great communicator,” Father Manuel said. “I’m sure the parishioners will be very comfortable working with her because she’s compassionate and patient.”
Though the parish bookkeeper and Father Manuel will be overseeing Katherin’s work, she says now is her time to prove herself.
“Age does put some pressure on me because you want to make sure you’re doing everything right,” Katherin said. “I’m glad that he trusted me with such a big case. It’s helping me grow and learn from it.”
More than one-million people called the FEMA hotline on the first day it opened. The agency has already received tens of thousands of applications. Father Manuel says he was expecting cases from his parish to come flooding in, but his parishioners are skeptical.
“We try to convince them,” he said. “They don’t think they will meet the requirements or that they will be able to prove or come up with certain evidence of the COVID status of the loved one who passed away.”
Jennifer’s dad’s death certificate listed COVID-19, but the church is now working with Elmhurst Hospital to help parishioners change any inaccurate death certificates before they apply to FEMA.
For more information on how you can be reimbursed for funeral expenses, call the COVID-19 funeral assistance line Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern Time or visit FEMA’s website at fema.gov.
COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Line Number
844-684-6333 | TTY: 800-462-7585
Hours of Operation:
Monday – Friday
9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern Time