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A rush to bury the dead as virus outbreak leaves mourners saying goodbye from a distance

Don 'Breezy' Campbell's funeral is just one example among countless others that have been drastically reshaped by the coronavirus outbreak, where family and friends are forced to say goodbye to lost loved ones from a distance and at an accelerated pace.

Coronavirus outbreak has altered the way people mark the passing of loved ones

Don 'Breezy' Campbell died of complications from COVID-19 on Saturday. He was 90. (Andrew Campbell/Twitter)

There was no one to hold Shirley Campbell close the day her husband of more than 60 years, Don "Breezy" Campbell, was buried. Instead, the widow was stuck at home in quarantine, where she watched her late husband's funeral from a cellphone livestream. 

It's a cruel reality thanks to physical distancing measures designed to protect the community from the virus that took Campbell's life during Easter long weekend. The whole family: his five children, 13 grandchildren, their children and their partners said goodbye on Monday from their cars.

So did many people looking to pay their last respects in Dutton Dunwich, Ont., southwest of London. Members of the Elgin County community lined the funeral procession route with cars and pickup trucks, where they paid tribute from their vehicles.

Campbell's funeral is just one example among countless others that have been drastically reshaped by the coronavirus outbreak, where family and friends are forced to say goodbye to lost loved ones from a distance and at an accelerated pace. 

Mourning 'turned upside down'

The Campbell family, seen here at Don 'Breezy' Campbell's 90th birthday party last August, has struggled with how physical distancing measures have affected their ability to mourn his death. (Jodie Aldred)

"That's probably the biggest struggle for all of us," said Andrew Campbell, a Strathroy dairy farmer who was one of Don Campbell's many grandchildren.

The 90-year-old died on the Saturday of the Easter long weekend and his close-knit rural family found themselves rushing to bury their beloved patriarch by Monday. 

"We're burying him this afternoon because of the virus," Campbell said.

The province said the risk of mortuary staff contracting COVID-19 from an infected person's body is low, but there is a higher risk of catching it from the living. For that reason, funeral homes must limit memorial services to 10 people or less and in some cases, hold them virtually when space can't provide adequate physical distancing.

The Bereavement Authority of Ontario has also moved toward an expedited death response process to further reduce infection risks and has ordered all crematoriums to be in a 24/7 state of readiness to avoid the stockpiling of bodies during the pandemic.

It means families struggling with their grief are sometimes doing so on a compressed timeline and without the benefit of physical contact because of distancing measures. 

"The challenge is, you're used to holding onto each other, you're used to getting together," said Campbell.

"You think you know how this is supposed to go. Obviously that's kind of turned upside down."

A jarring new normal

It's a jarring new normal of the coronavirus pandemic, where memorial services are happening in parking lots or via livestream because of strict bans on public gatherings. Families have had to rethink end-of-life ceremonies and forego customary rituals that are centuries old. 

"It's different. You're just sort of figuring this out for the first time," Campbell said of his grandfather's funeral. "Down the road we'll certainly have some kind of celebration of life when we can, but obviously we want some kind of closure now."

"We're thankful there's the technology to allow us to still be in touch with each other on a very regular basis. It's not like we're not still sharing those stories or having those conversations, it's just in a different way."

Many of those stories are about a man who, despite the fact he was nearly a century old, never seemed to slow down.

Andrew Campbell is an Ontario dairy farmer and public speaker. (Andrew Campbell/Twitter)

"It was just his personality. He didn't sit still well," his grandson said. "I hope I'm that active when I'm 60, let alone 90. He was always a goer."

That relentless energy made him a pillar of the Dutton township community. He raised money for community projects through the Lions Club, and they even named the local splash pad "Breezy pad" in his honour. 

When he wasn't doing organized charity work, he was doing it whenever the opportunity presented itself. Andrew Campbell recalled the time his grandfather learned one of his neighbours in his apartment complex was laid up after an operation. 

"He walked their dog for weeks on end," Campbell said. "He shoveled everybody's front door in that apartment for a while until the building got worried about liability and wouldn't let him do it anymore."

Husband and wife of 60 years said goodbye via FaceTime

Campbell said his grandfather would also clear peoples' windshields in the wintertime, whether they asked him to or not.

"He embraced a lot of those things about the rural community. You're looking out for each other. You want to be there for people."

It's perhaps fitting then that when Don Campbell was in the intensive care unit at St Thomas Hospital, the nurses there were looking out for him. 

Many hospitals around the country have tightened their visiting policies, often forbidding anyone from entering the facility for fear that they could either bring the illness in or take it with them when they leave. 

It meant Campbell was physically separated from his wife Shirley, even while he lay dying of COVID-19. To give the couple some comfort, hospital staff arranged so that the two could see each other. 

"One of the nurses was really, really generous and let him FaceTime grandma," Campbell said. "They had a chance to say goodbye."

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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