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The Financial Toll of COVID-19 Deaths

Organizations in New York City have stepped in to help families with funeral costs and related matters in communities hit hard by the disease, but their money and resources are strained.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Getty Images.

Losing a loved one unexpectedly is never easy. For a low-income family during a global pandemic, it can be overwhelming.

In New York City, more than 23,000 people have most likely died from COVID-19, and the deaths have been concentrated in low-income neighborhoods. About 19 percent of the city’s population lives in poverty. 

Systems in place to help grieving loved ones locate a body and pay for a funeral have been overwhelmed or difficult to navigate. It’s been even more complicated for immigrants, who make up over a third of the city’s population; for undocumented immigrants, some of these systems have been inaccessible.

“All they want is to have some sense of closure on this tragedy, but in the moment, they have no idea what to do,” said Theo Oshiro, deputy director of the community organizing group Make the Road New York.

The difficulties begin with hospitals, which have been overburdened with COVID-19 cases and whose services to help families navigate the system have been overrun. Some families have been getting a call from the hospital telling them that their loved one has died from COVID-19 with no further instructions about what comes next, Oshiro said. 

The stress on the hospital system has spilled over into funeral homes, he added. Normally, funeral homes take care of obtaining the body from the hospital, preparing it for cremation or burial, and planning and arranging whatever funeral the family may want. 

“That system just got blown up,” Oshiro said. “Funeral homes are just not able to cope with the sheer numbers of people that are dying.” 

Between mid-March and mid-May, one Bronx funeral home took care of 200 bodies, compared to 55 in a typical time period; by late April it had had to turn away more than 200 families for lack of space. 

In some cases, Make the Road staff had to beg a funeral home to take a family on. Some funeral homes didn’t even answer because they were so overwhelmed, Oshiro said. One family he worked with lived in Queens could only find a funeral home that would take them in Staten Island because other homes were so full. 

Between mid-March and mid-May, one Bronx funeral home took care of 200 bodies, compared to 55 in a typical time period.

Because of high demand, it has also been taking weeks, and in some cases, a month or more to retrieve a body and ready it for a funeral. There are just five crematories in the city, and the backlog of bodies waiting for cremation reached as high as 3,400 during the pandemic. 

At the peak of caseloads in New York, some hospitals told family members they only had a short window to move a body—some were told two weeks, others were told as soon as possible, according to Oshiro—before it would get sent to a mass burial ground, such as the one on Hart Island

Jahid Minto, general secretary of The Greater Noakhali Society USA Inc., a Bangladeshi community organization, had one experience where he sent a funeral director to pick up a body at a hospital and the hospital couldn’t find it. Two days later they found out it had been put in a refrigerated truck. Abdul Hannan Panna of Sandwip Society USA, which does work similar to Noakhali Society, said it sometimes took four or five days to get a body because the hospital staff was so hard to reach.

For those who have language barriers, “folks have trouble, even when given instructions, understanding what they have to do to collect the bodies,” noted Karina Albistegui Adler, a law graduate in the health justice program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. They have also struggled to find funeral homes that can accommodate them and that are near where they live. 

Funeral parlor workers move a body from a refrigeration truck serving as a temporary morgue at the Brooklyn Hospital Center to a hearse, in Brooklyn on April 8. Photo by Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images.

A funeral is expensive, too. Oshiro found that the cheapest service still ran between $3,000 and $4,000. “For a family that can barely put food on the table, hearing that price tag and grappling with that is just traumatic,” he said. If a family wants an in-person service, that costs many thousands more to cover safety precautions. 

For Minto, the most difficult challenge has been finding grave spaces. Noakhali Society has its own space reserved on Long Island at Washington Memorial Park Cemetery. But graves are thousands of dollars cheaper in New Jersey and the wait time is far shorter, so many families are going there instead. 

There are drawbacks; visiting a grave in New Jersey means more travel, and the graveyards Minto has used in New Jersey don’t let family members reserve spots next to their buried loved ones for when they, too, die.

Then comes the difficult process of sorting out what gets left behind. “After a person dies, you’re stuck with whatever planning or non-planning the person did,” said Joe Rosenberg, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law. But New York courts closed during the height of the pandemic except for essential needs, such as pending trials, delaying probate over contested wills, for example. Even without one, a family needs a death certificate to get access to many assets—retirement accounts, life insurance, and bank accounts. But with so many delays in handling bodies, that can get backed up, too, Rosenberg said.Time is of the essence for low-income families who may need the money not just to cover funeral costs, but to buy food and pay rent. 

And if the family is entitled to survivor benefits from an employer, that means proving that their loved one contracted COVID-19 on the job. To do this, the doctor who treated the sick person must file a report that the virus exposure happened through employment, something hospital doctors treating hundreds of COVID-19 patients may not have time for, noted William Crossett, co-chairperson of the New York Workers’ Compensation Alliance. Even then, insurance companies can dispute the case, and companies are likely to fight it. Crossett said employers are already pushing back, arguing that those who died contracted the disease from the wider community or that they were the ones who brought the coronavirus that causes the disease into the workplace in the first place.

All of these logistics have to be ironed out while a family is deep in grief and often cannot attend their loved ones’ funerals or visit their graves because of fears of contracting the disease themselves. “The experience is unexplainable,” Minto said. 

The immigrant community that Oshiro works with was hit hard and early by COVID-19, particularly because so many of them work in jobs with high exposure risk. “Folks were very exposed, doing deliveries, coming into contact with hundreds of people every day, riding the subways, taking care of people in their households,” he said. His organization started hearing about cases in mid-March, and then “it was just a rush of cases left and right.”

These families also typically didn’t have much if anything in savings, so they were in dire need of financial assistance. The federal government usually offers funeral relief through FEMA after disasters, but that money has yet to be made available. New York City’s Human Resources Administration offers assistance, but it isn’t given to undocumented people. Eventually the nonprofit Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City stepped in to offer funding to undocumented families. The city also increased its assistance from $900 to $1,700 per person. Make the Road set up a fund to help people with funeral costs, disbursing $1,000 to each family affected by a COVID-19 death. Still, families have to cobble together the rest of the money for a funeral from friends and family. 

Minto has been covering the costs of funerals and burials with his own money so that families don’t have to worry. He has transferred money to funeral homes from his bank accounts; he put grave spaces on his American Express. “My first intention is to get it done,” he said. “We’ll worry about the money later.” In one instance, someone died whom nobody in the community knew, so Minto paid $3,200 to take care of expenses. “I don’t want to see bodies laying around for two weeks, three weeks, and nobody is doing anything because there’s no money,” he said.

My first intention is to get it done. We’ll worry about the money later.

Jahid Minto general secretary of The Greater Noakhali Society USA Inc.

But the organizations are underwater. “It’s extremely, extremely hard,” Minto said of his capacity to help everyone in need. To make matters worse, Minto became sick with COVID-19 as he was trying to assist families who needed his help with funerals. “Mentally this was like, ‘Oh my God, is it me next,’” he recalled. It took him about a month to fully recover. He also personally knew many of the people who succumbed in his community. “A lot of good people died,” he said.

Oshiro and his co-workers at Make the Road New York typically offer things like legal advice or language classes to their members. But once COVID-19 hit and the organization was flooded with calls, they had to educate themselves on how to help with funeral arrangements. 

“We weren’t experts at all in tracking bodies and … understanding how funeral homes operate and when cremations can happen and when can’t they,” Oshiro said. “We quickly found out there were no easy answers.”

Noakhali Society has existed since 1993, “but we have never been hit with anything like this before,” Minto said. Within the span of six weeks, he had helped 38 families; typically he helps about 20 families in an entire year. Sandwip Society, Panna’s organization, had helped more than a dozen families by mid-May.

COVID-19 has “hit these communities in an extremely hard way,” Oshiro said. “It’s been one of the worst times that I can remember in the communities that we work with.”

Still, amid so much need, both the Noakhali Society and Sandwip Society USA have opened up their services to anyone, not just their members, regardless of religion. “It doesn’t matter who you are in this time,” Panna said. “Just ask for help and then we’re there.”