Families who lost loved ones to COVID are clamoring for $7K funeral funds

Lottie Cotton, a 73-year-old longtime San Francisco public school elementary school advisor, is one of the more than 500,000 people in the United States who have died of coronavirus since the pandemic first broke out last year, and now her family is hoping to be reimbursed for her funeral through a new program authorized last month.

But just how to access $7,000 in funeral funds that should be coming to her family has not yet been finalized and that delay is frustrating not only to her family, but to countless others across the country. Dozens of families have contacted KTVU since the announcement came out about the funds two weeks ago; all are desperate to be reimbursed and all are confused as to why the announcement would be made weeks or months in advance of the logistics being worked out. 

Johtay Darwin says goodbye to his great-grandmother Lottie Cotton, who died of COVID on Dec. 31, 2020.

 California congresswoman announces $7K a person for COVID funeral expenses

"Our family has really been hit hard," said Michelle Moore, Cotton's 50-year-old daughter, who lives in Hayward and is currently out of work.

Cotton had gone into the hospital on her birthday and never returned home.

"She didn't want to go, but I made her," Moore said tearfully. "She was such a beautiful person. She was never disagreeable. She was always helpful." 

Moore was able to bury her mother on Feb. 5, paying about $10,500 for the burial, the service and the dress.

Not only did her mother die on Dec. 30 at Washington Hospital in Fremont, but two hours earlier, her uncle also died of COVID-19 in Southern California. Her family has two funerals to pay for. 

Lottie Cotton was a longtime educator in San Francisco.

And now, Moore and her relatives are hoping to get reimbursed for $7,000 from a larger $2-billion Federal Emergency Management Agency fund for families to afford funerals for their loved ones who died of COVID-19.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) announced the fund in mid-February. The legislation was based on a similar funeral assistance relief bill launched after people died during Hurricane Katrina. 

However, to date, FEMA has not yet set up how to distribute those funds or even tell people when they can access the money, according to Lee's office. In addition, just who is eligible has not yet been worked out. For instance, one family inquired whether someone who died of COVID in prison would get the money; that question has yet to be answered. 

Lawmakers said that FEMA is creating a hotline to help provide information to people seeking reimbursement. 

In the meantime, government officials recommend that families begin gathering any documentation of funeral costs, such as billing records from the mortuary, cemetery or other services. Those interested in participating in the program will need expense documentation, a death certificate, and other personal information documents to show to FEMA. 

The funds will be retroactive to those who died between Jan. 20 to Dec. 31, 2020. 

The current funding does not cover deaths in 2021, even though Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have said they are trying to extend that in the next COVID relief bill. 

That hard cutoff date is more than disappointing for John Madox Jr. of Hayward.

His father, John Maddox Sr., a former Navy sailor and Christian minister, died on Jan. 1, one day after the deadline expired. 

His father's church had shut down because of coronavirus and he ended up driving with a friend to the birthday party of a 1-year-old, Maddox Jr. said. That friend unknowingly had the virus and gave it to his dad, who was in the hospital for weeks before his death. 

The Navy paid for a military plot off Highway 5 near Fresno.

But Maddox Jr., who is an out-of-work roofer, dipped into his Social Security savings to come up with another $8,000 to pay for the rest. 

It's expensive, he said.

But he said he would pay any price to bury a father whom he loved and who he said: "was the happiest person I knew in my whole life."

"It's tough," Maddox Jr. said. "I wish the lawmakers would extend the help. I mean, we have to pay for the funeral. There is no other choice." 

John Maddox Sr. and Jr. The elder Maddox died of coronavirus on Jan. 1, 2021.

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@foxtv.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez