How Families Pay a High Price When Loved Ones Die of COVID-19

Aideridth Sanchez lost her uncle, Alfredo Herrera, a 36-year-old restaurant worker, to coronavirus in mid April.

The 20-year-old Queens woman also lost her jobs working at a retail store and a restaurant — making it hard to scrape up enough money to pay for final arrangements for her uncle, a father figure to Sanchez and 14 other nieces and nephews.

“With the funeral for my uncle, like for him to get cremated…money has been going away,” said Sanchez, who lives in Corona, one of the city neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than 20,000 New Yorkers, bringing crushing grief that’s compounded, in many cases, by financial challenges that start with memorializing loved ones.

The costs stretch from affording funerals as prices rise amid unprecedented demand to deciding whether to pay for public death notices. Meanwhile, data shows the virus has disproportionately affected working-class immigrant communities and black and Hispanic New Yorkers — communities also feeling the economic effects of the crisis.

The city Human Resources Administration recently nearly doubled its burial assistance grants for low-income New Yorkers, to $1,700.

But in March and April, when the city logged 18,000 coronavirus-related deaths, fewer than 200 New Yorkers applied for funds — a 7% drop compared to the same period last year, THE CITY has learned.

HRA officials attribute the decrease to people staying home: Until late March, the department accepted applications only via mail or in person. People can now apply by email or fax.

“We are making this vital resource available to more New Yorkers, finalizing changes that will enable more households to apply,” said Isaac McGinn, an HRA spokesperson.

The agency said the numbers of how many have applied through email or fax are not yet available. The department did not disclose how many of the nearly 200 applicants received the grant so far, and did not have application figures for May.

‘Nobody Could Pay’

Amber Decker, who has applied to the program, is not feeling hopeful.

Decker lost her 92-year-old grandmother, Catherine Koncurat, in early May. Koncurat did not die of the virus, yet Decker found herself in a crowded market competing for the same funeral service many others were seeking.

After much research, she settled with a Manhattan funeral home and paid $3,000 for cremation — a service that cost $2,262 on average in New York City before coronavirus, according to Funeralocity, a website that compares costs of funeral homes.

“Nobody could pay for anything, so I put that in my credit card. And that was that,” said Decker, a 39-year old disability advocate who lives in Brooklyn.

Because Decker paid less than $3,400 for cremation, she is eligible to receive the maximum amount of $1,700 from the city program. Decker said navigating the application process was not easy.

“They were impossible to get ahold of. I emailed, saying I left a message. I eventually got a call,” said Decker. “They said it would take some time. I also need the death certificate.”

The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued 159,000 copies of death certificates from March to May 18th, nearly twice as many from the same period last year.

“I feel I’ll never get that money back, honestly. But it’s not like I have a lot of money,” said Decker.

Prices Jump

The health department reported 32,000 fatalities from March 11 to May 2 — four times more deaths than the city’s normally expected figure.

Ed Michael Reggie, the CEO of Funeralocity, estimated that for New York City funeral homes the price of the cremation service has gone up by 43% over the pre-pandemic cost.

He said the increase reflected the “unbelievable demand” that funeral home homes face rather than price gouging. “No other region is indicating this kind of instability,” Reggie said.

For grieving families, in addition to the higher cost, finding a funeral home that will take on a body can be a challenge.

“In many instances, people are having to go to cemeteries outside of their immediate area, thus incurring additional transportation expenses,” said Reggie.

In April alone, Tamara Bullock, a funeral director for 18 years, had more clients than she had for the whole year before.

She only recently was able to go to sleep before 3 a.m. for the first time since March, she said.

“I haven’t ever experienced so many people who just didn’t know what to do,” added Bullock, who serves clientele primarily in Harlem and the South Bronx. “Everybody passed away at the same time.”

Bullock has kept her prices the same, except to pay for crematories that charge varying rates. There are only four crematories in New York City, meaning weeks-long waits.

She noted most of her clients come from low- to middle-income families that have been hard hit financially.

“There are so many people who have not been able to live the way they would if they were still working because they’re not collecting any type of income. So I have to be conscious of that,” she said.

Schneps Media, which owns several community newspapers that include the Bronx Times and The Queens Courier, charges $250 for obituaries with photos and, at a minimum, $20 for 20 words of text. New York Amsterdam News’s advertising department quoted $399 for an 300-word-long obituary with a passport-size photo of the deceased.

The New York Times charges at least $236.34 for a one-day publication in its national edition and online. The New York Daily News said its average obituary rate is nearly $600.

Most outlets don’t offer free options. The Staten Island Advance stopped the publication of free death notices years ago.

“Obits aren’t cheap,” said William Atkins, an advertising sale consultant with Amsterdam News.

‘Couldn’t Hug My Family’

Cost aside, families have come up with ways to celebrate the lives of their loved ones.

Etta B. Alston’s family decided to hold a virtual memorial service after the Brooklyn woman’s death April 4 at age 87. One of Alston’s sons is asthmatic and one of her daughters was sick with COVID-19 symptoms.

“We all live in New York City and at that time it was really the apex. A lot of stuff was going on, a lot of deaths,” said Leslie Alston, her other daughter. “So we decided, as a family, that it wouldn’t be in our best interest to gather.”

Leslie Alston hadn’t attended a virtual memorial before — “it was the idea of a millennial family member” — but would recommend it.

The online memorial drew family members from all over — Las Vegas, California, Puerto Rico — at a time when travel to New York represents a major hurdle.

More than 100 people attended through Zoom — Alston knows, since they reached the participant limit. The service was also streamed on Elpida Church Facebook page, enabling others to watch live or later.

The virtual memorial included prayers, singing, eulogies and a tribute video, a photo montage with a voiceover reading an obituary. When the service was over, family members lingered online.

“It was one of the only ways for us to connect,” Alston said. “You know, usually in difficult times people are able to be together and hug. That was probably the most difficult thing, I couldn’t hug my family.”

To celebrate Alfredo Herrera’s life, Sanchez and her family held a Novenario, a Mexican tradition that involves saying the rosary for nine days.

Herrera died alone at Flushing Hospital Medical Center and his family did not get to see him.

“Before the closure of the rosary, we went around and talked about the moments we cherished with him and had a moment of silence where we spoke with him and said our last goodbyes,” Sanchez said.

Beatriz Muylaert is a reporting fellow for Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School. Funding for CJI is provided by the school’s Investigative Reporting Resource.

The article was published at How Families Pay a High Price When Loved Ones Die of COVID-19

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