‘It tears you up inside’: Local family remembers beloved community member lost to COVID-19

FEMA can help pay for the funeral of loved ones lost to COVID-19. Here's how to apply -- and what it means to a local family who suffered a terrible loss

MARKESAN, Wis. — “He was a wonderful man. He was very humble. He was a great family man.”

For Pam Bark and many others in the Green Lake County community of Markesan, the return of a new school year has been bittersweet.

“He was a man of faith and he had a really good sense of humor.”

Last summer, Markesan’s beloved superintendent, teacher and football coach Duane Bark started showing symptoms of COVID-19.

Duane ended up getting tested. He was positive.

“It was on Monday. By Thursday, I believe I ended up in the hospital the next day. My mom, who was living with us at that time, went into the hospital. And the day after my daughter went into the hospital,” Pam said.

Pam and her mother spent three weeks in the hospital. But it was Duane who was hit the hardest.

“His condition started to deteriorate even more. And one morning they came in and said, ‘we’re going to have to induce a coma and put you on the ventilator,'” Pam said.

Duane fought for three months on a ventilator in the ICU.

He passed away October 7th, 2020, at the age of 61.

“The last moment before he passed, he opened his eyes and looked up in heaven and took a deep breath and he had tears coming out of his eyes. And I think that was beautiful,” Pam said.

Pam held a memorial service in July and made sure it was a celebration of Duane’s life, whatever the cost.

“There’s a lot of hidden expenses. There’s hidden expenses with a burial plot, with a tombstone. Those are things people don’t always look at because they think that they’re going to have time down the road,” Pam said.

Jim Wolfe is the president of the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association and owner of MFL Wolfe Funeral Home in Janesville.

“If we’re talking like a full casket remains, a funeral, a burial at a local cemetery, (costs) anywhere from the ballpark of $11,000 to $15,000,” Wolfe said.

Funeral assistance available from FEMA has been extended indefinitely. Eligible applicants can receive up to $9,000 for reimbursement of funeral costs.

There’s no deadline to apply, but there’s also no reason to wait.

Dan Schulman is a FEMA spokesman.

“Individuals will need to submit a number of pieces of documentation,” Schulman said. “First and foremost will be a death certificate for the person that they lost, whose funeral expenses they paid for. The only time restriction is that the death has to have occurred after January 20th, 2020.”

This is the first time the federal agency is using a call-in-only application process with FEMA’s toll-free number: 844-684-6333.

“This is a completely manual process. You will talk to someone when you call. It’s not an automated system. The current wait time to get connected to a live operator is less than a minute.”

FEMA has provided over $1 billion so far to assist with funeral costs. Almost $19 million of that has gone to Wisconsin.

“You unfortunately lost someone, paid for a funeral in Wisconsin as a result of COVID-19. Please call us, register and let us work through your application,” Schulman said. “(We can’t) bring your loved one back. But we can help ease the burden of their loss.”

“Life is unpredictable. Don’t put off that bucket list. Don’t put off at vacation. Don’t put off anything. You know, just because the timing isn’t right,” Pam Bark said. “Until you lose somebody so close, you have no… I don’t think anyone has any idea how it tears you up inside.”