Navajo Nation leaders approve funding to help families with COVID-19 funeral expenses

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
The Window Rock formation is illuminated on March 17 in tribute to members of the Navajo Nation who died of COVID-19.

FARMINGTON — Navajo Nation leaders approved a bill to allocate $2 million in supplemental funding to support a resource that helps families with funeral expenses related to a COVID-19 death.

In February, the tribe's Division of Social Services requested the amount for its COVID-19 burial assistance because the resource was close to depleting its funding.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer on April 9 signed the bill that will transfer $2 million from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance to the division.

"For every life lost there are family members who grieve their loss and we continue to pray for their comfort," they wrote in a memorandum to Speaker Seth Damon.

There have been 1,262 deaths related to COVID-19 for the tribe as of April 10. Nez and Lizer stated they understand virus will continue to take lives.

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At left, Navajo Nation second lady Dottie Lizer, Vice President Myron Lizer and first lady Phefelia Nez listen on March 17 to President Jonathan Nez, second from right, deliver remarks about members of the tribe who died of COVID-19.

"The division has worked tirelessly in finding sources of funding to help our people, but those sources are limited. We thank the Navajo council for supporting the division and their work," the president and vice president wrote.

Delegate Pernell Halona, who sponsored the bill, told the Navajo Nation Council that the division has received 1,519 requests for assistance as of March 26.

"In some situations, more than one family member were lost and it imposed tremendous financial hardship, crisis on the loved ones that are left behind," Halona said.

Deannah Neswood-Gishey, the division's executive director, told delegates that the COVID-19 burial assistance resource was started during the pandemic and prior to its establishment, the division used federal funding provided to its pre-existing burial assistance program.

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A display of small paper lanterns set up in Window Rock, Arizona represents each member of the Navajo Nation who died of COVID-19 as of March 17, which marked a year since the first case of the virus was identified on the tribal land.

That pre-existing program capped assistance at $2,500 for a standard funeral and families had to use mortuaries that have contracts with the tribe, Neswood-Gishey explained.

The COVID-19 burial assistance provides $3,500 and there is no requirement to use mortuaries that have agreements with tribe, she said adding that the division has helped families from California, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas.

After the council passed the bill on March 26, they directed the division to "take all steps necessary" to fund or reimburse up to $3,500 to families who did not apply for or were denied COVID-19 related burial assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or because they did not use mortuaries that have contracts with the tribe.

The directive also stated families who received $2,500 are eligible for the additional $1,000.

In the memorandum from Nez and Lizer, they mentioned that they anticipate working on the offer by FEMA for funeral assistance as a separate source of funding for tribal members.

"The Division of Social Services is working on how applications are processed and will provide that information to all. We continue our fight against the monster virus, and we offer our prayers for all Navajo people for their continued health and safety," they wrote.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at

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