Burial Assistance gives mourners financial help, time to grieve

When Devyn Johnson unexpectedly lost her mom, Shannan Lee Phillips, on June 2, 2017, in Washington state at the age of 41, it wasn't until six months later that Johnson was able to sit in her grief and mourn her mother.

As the eldest, Johnson said a lot of the financial responsibility of planning the funeral fell on her. She was 25 years old.

"I hadn't lost anyone before," she said. "I was just like, 'Now what?' And instead of being able to be sad and grieve, I had to go into business mode, put my feelings aside."

Johnson, now 29, said there can be so many unanticipated costs associated with a loved one passing away. Johnson's mother was cremated and her remains shipped to Wrangell, where she was born and lived much of her life.

"The most surprising cost to me was how expensive the niche and the plaque were, that alone was around $1,200 just for the box and the plaque itself," Johnson said.

And then where to place the remains was another logistical issue. Until Johnson could get her mother her own niche in Wrangell's columbarium, a structure of vaults that accommodate urns, Johnson had to temporarily place her remains in a family member's reserved niche. The cost of having the city and borough open the columbarium was $150, Johnson said.

Johnson said when people in Wrangell lose a loved one, they should not have to go into business mode.

"I wanted to sit and remember her and I wanted to be sad," Johnson said. "I wanted to go through the grieving process and I just didn't have time to. I was just so focused on funeral planning."

Johnson established Wrangell Burial Assistance in 2019. "It had been on my heart for a few years. I kept telling (my husband) Dustin and my friends, I want to prevent this for other people."

She posted online that she wanted to put together an organization to help families going through the same thing she did. Johnson said "a few wonderful women" wrote her back and they got together, came up with a name and filled out paperwork to establish a nonprofit.

A group of eight women sit on the board: Johnson, president; Tammi Meissner, vice president; Darian Burley, secretary; Rachel Harris, treasurer; and Loretta Rice, Keeleigh Solverson, Grace Wintermyer, and Tracy Churchill are directors.

Burley, who owns Magnolia Beauty Bar, a hair and nail salon, said they've helped around 10 people so far. When Amy and Isabelle Ferdinand's dad Randy Ferdinand, a fisherman and community member, died in a boating accident in February 2020 - preceded in death by their mother - Wrangell Burial Assistance took part in community efforts with the running group Southeast Beasts for a silent auction and community walk that helped raise about $8,000 for the Ferdinands.

Since beginning the nonprofit, Johnson said the group has distributed about $12,000 in aid.

The organization's website also lists resources, from funeral homes to florists, in one place, so grieving families can have all the information they need to plan a ceremony, cremation or coordinate logistics of flying their loved ones' remains in or out of Wrangell for embalming.

Johnson said there is an application on the website, wrangellburialassistance.com, and the turnaround time is usually within 24 hours. The organization pays the funeral home directly, "and that just takes one thing off of the family's plate."

The application has other assistance options as well. "If our contribution doesn't cover the entire cost, we will help to point them in the direction of getting more assistance when needed," Johnson said.


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