Ivan Rodriguez died in a shooting on Jan. 22, and his family paid for his funeral using GoFundMe.

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Lenny Alvarez recognized the young man immediately. In the small, pixelated video, Alvarez saw her nephew, Ivan Rodriguez. She could make out his body and half of his face — the same one she’d seen smile countless times over the last 19 years.

“I’ve seen him since the day he was born,” said Alvarez, a 32-year-old Kensington resident. “I know his face, his hair, his head. Everything.”

She would know Ivan’s visage anywhere, no matter the circumstances, she said. But in this video — shown to her by a detective — it was hard to look at. He had been shot dead in the streets of Trenton, New Jersey.

The family isn’t yet sure of the circumstances that led to the shooting on Jan. 22, except that Rodriguez was with one of his friends when it happened, and that the police investigation is ongoing. But the sudden nature of his death meant his close family members didn’t have any chance to prepare.

Along with their unexpected grief, they suddenly incurred the tremendous financial responsibilities associated with putting a loved one to rest: Ivan’s funeral costs alone added up to about $7,000.

The saving grace: a crowdfunding page that Rodriguez’s cousin Gigi Oviedo set up. The campaign raised $6,730 from 56 people. Without it, Alvarez explained, the family would’ve been in trouble.

“There’s some other people that helped us, but really, that helped us so much,” Alvarez said.

This unorthodox solution for memorials — distributing costs among the community via GoFundMe — appears to be especially popular in Philly.

Ivan Rodriguez, 19, died on Jan. 22, 2018 Credit: Courtesy / Lenny Alvarez

Crowdfunding a funeral

Most Philadelphians could use an extra buck every now and again. That’s evident from the GoFundMe page dedicated to local fundraisers. The causes are diverse — people need money to travel, maintain their cars and pay for their pets’ vet costs.

And then there are the funerals.

Of the top 45 crowdfunding campaigns in Philadelphia currently listed on the site, 25 are looking for help paying for memorials.

GoFundMe recognizes the need, and even has a page dedicated to the purpose. “By crowdfunding for funeral and memorial costs, you can spend less time worrying about finances,” it reads. “Whether you’d like to commemorate your loved one with a memorial fund or scholarship, or you have upcoming funeral bills, GoFundMe can help.”

People in Philly — the poorest big city in the U.S., where nearly half the city’s residents can’t make ends meet — turn to this solution more than people in other metros, it seems.

In Chicago, the top 45 crowdfunding pages yield just nine requests to fund funerals. In Boston, there are five, and in New York City, there are only two.

Paying the bills

Nationally, funerals are estimated to cost an average of about $8,755 this year, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Those costs will vary based on some of the family’s choices. Cremation, for example, could save you a few thousand dollars — and it’s on the rise in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association estimates cremation will be the method of disposition chosen for 49.7 percent of deaths in Pennsylvania this year. That’s up from 36.1 percent in 2010.

Burial is particularly expensive in Philly, per PFDA assistant executive director James Eirkson.

“If you were to go in and purchase a new grave in the Philadelphia Catholic Archdiocese,” he said, “that’d be a couple thousand potentially just for the opening and closing of a grave.”

Rodgriguez’s family quickly discovered those mounting costs, like the transportation of Ivan’s body from Trenton to Kensington. Even the cost of serving coffee, tea and juice at the service was more than they expected.

The expenses seemed even more ominous considering the family’s circumstances — Ivan’s mother has four other children, and she is the family’s sole source of income ever since their father got deported to the Dominican Republic. For a few weeks, there was no income at all, because Ivan’s mother had to take time off to grieve.

The sentiment isn’t unusual, Eirkson said. Funerals are costly, and there are a number of expensive factors that people don’t see coming. Some of those costs include:

  • Removal and transfer of remains
  • Shelter of remains (this pays for the funeral home to store the body until the actual service)
  • Funeral facilities
  • The hearse
  • Memorial packaging (think memorial cards, programs, videos, etc.)

Not recommended…but acceptable

The prominence of GoFundMe pages in Philly doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be effective. The outcome depends completely on the individual who sets up the page. Factors like your personal social circle and the story of your loved one’s death can decide how much money you raise.

“We probably raised the amount of money we did because he was so young, because he was killed and it was not his fault,” Oviedo said. “It was so sudden. Everyone was surprised he lost his life.”

Across Philly users of the crowdfunding site, the results are split. Of the 25 aforementioned campaigns for funerals, 14 ended up within $1,000 of their initial goal. The other 11 didn’t quite make the cut.

In general, the PFDA doesn’t recommend people use crowdfunding sites to pay for funerals, per Eirkson: “On a high level, there have been concerns.”

Eirkson worries people will book expensive funerals dependent on the goal listed on their crowdfunding pages, and then they won’t actually raise enough money to cover the costs. Even if the money does come through, what if the recipient never ends up forwarding it to the funeral director?

If you must use a crowdfunding site, Eirkson said, he recommends you discuss it with your funeral director first. Perhaps they can arrange for the funeral director to be the benefactor on the page — that way, they can feel secure that they’ll receive the cash.

“I’ve had conversations with funeral directors who say they’ll accept it,” Eirkson said.

The funeral for Ivan Rodriguez cost his family about $7,000. Credit: Courtesy / Gigi Oviedo

Grieving an expensive loss

Rodriguez’s family was among the lucky ones, relatively speaking. They raised nearly all the money they needed to pay for his memorial service and burial at Holly Innocents Parish in Hunting Park.

Nearly three months after Ivan’s death, the funeral has been paid for in full. The family has settled into a new normal without him — his mother returned to work at a warehouse in Kensington.

“Right now, I feel she’s accepting more that he’s dead,” said Alvarez, Ivan’s aunt. “She’s working hard for her kids.”

But the family’s loss is no less painful. They visit his grave on the 22nd of every month — the same date he died in January. They bring flowers and candles, and they talk to him about their lives. They tell him they miss him.

“We tell him everything we feel,” Alvarez said.

Ivan was a good kid, his cousin Oviedo said. He was a twin, and he was good to his four siblings. He often helped his mother out around the house.

Alvarez said his death inspired the family to connect more often.

“We spend more time together now,” Alvarez said. “Everything we didn’t do when he was here, let’s do it now.”

“We feel a little bit better now,” she added. “Time gets everything together.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...