Canada Implemented Social Distancing from the Dead to Save the Living by: Robyn Lacy

All across Canada, the funeral industry, particularly cemeteries and how they function to the public during the time of this pandemic, is changing.  For fear of the living spreading COVID-19 when gathering to mourn the dead, families are not only delaying funerals but also cemeteries are closing in order to safeguard death care workers.  

Due to what is being termed “Caul’s Cluster,” local officials and cemetery board of directors are making the tough decisions to drastically limit their open hours and shut down cemeteries to the public altogether or make room in already tight budgets for PPE for all employees. It is called “Caul’s Cluster” because Caul’s Funeral Home is the direct link to half of Newfoundland’s known COVID-19 cases.  In mid-March, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, an individual, who had recently travelled and later tested positive for Covid-19, attended a funeral at Caul’s Funeral Home that then resulted in more than 60 individuals becoming infected!  Although the individual did not knowingly spread the virus, as the measures in place were not as rigorous as they are today, the instance has shaken the funeral industry in Canada.  Self-isolation was ordered for everyone in attendance of the funeral which has greatly affected how other Canadian families funeralize.  Brett Watson, President of Funeral Services Association of Canada, stated that bereaved families are struggling with the social distancing measures at funerals – whereas it was typical for a dozens to gather has now been limited to 5-25 individuals.  Continuing, Watson said that although technological adaptations, such as live streaming the service or online obituaries, are an option, many families are currently choosing to delay the funeral, if possible (CTV 2020).

Subsequently, guidelines for funerals in Ontario (Canada’s most populous province) have been implemented recently in order to keep death care workers and the public as safe as possible. At the moment and in an effort to prevent backlog, a funeral home is instructed to pick up the body of the deceased within 1 hour of being contacted or 3 hours if the individual lived at a long-term care facility (Szperling 2020).  Families are being asked to be prepared for small guest counts (10 people), social distancing, and initial funeral meetings are happening over the phone between families and the funeral directors (Szperling 2020). With Italy, China, and NYC as usable examples, funeral homes in Canada are trying to prepare themselves for the potential surge (Maharaj 2020). 

The Mount Pleasant Group in Toronto, which owns and operates multiple cemeteries and funeral homes, has taken the precaution of closing their gates to visitors in early April, and only reopened on May 11, with severely reduced hours (Maharaj 2020, DeClerq 2020). To date in Canada, there have been approximately 69,911 confirmed cases, 32,664 recovered, and 4992 deaths (as reported on May 11,2020, updated numbers are found here).

One particular cemetery, Woodland Cemetery in London, Ontario, took drastic measures recently to protect their families and their workers. A place where a large number of London’s Greek Orthodox community are buried, it is tradition in the community that families visit the graves of their loved ones on Easter Sunday. However this year, in order to prevent a busy site and the inability for social distancing, Woodland Cemetery made the difficult choice to close their gates (Read 2020). This measure was taken not only to protect the families, but to protect their funeral directors and crematory operators, for without them the cemetery would no longer be able to provide their essential services to the public. Woodland houses a crematory on their grounds with two retorts (cremation machines) and a moderately-sized on-site cooler for deceased individuals awaiting cremation. If the situation worsens and the curve does not flatten, these spaces will become even more vital as the number of deaths increases. I worked at Woodland Cemetery last year and am proud of the difficult choice they made to shut their gates and keep everyone safe.

On May 11, 2020, Woodland Cemetery (@woodlandhistory) tweeted updated, restricted visiting hours to their grounds for the protection of their essential workers and visitors; reducing visiting hours to 5pm-dusk on weekdays and 1pm-dusk on weekends. Around the same time, the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO, @BAOntario) tweeted the updated restrictions for funeral attendance in Ontario: “a max of 5 people may gather; A max of 10 may gather for a grave side funeral service.” Cemeteries in Canada are adapting to the current situation as best they can, providing both the essential services of funerals, and places of mourning, as well as a peaceful outdoor space for visitors in a time when our access to such spaces has been severely restricted for public safety. 

Public frustration with cemetery closures and limited visitor hours is understandable, but thus far there appears to have been little public outcry on social media platforms. Are these precautions enough? Are they taking it too far? In my opinion, although it is devastative to the bereaved to have to choose a limited number of individuals to attend a funeral, these precautions must remain stringent and perhaps tighten, in order to protect those working in the deathcare industry, as essential frontline workers, to not only the public but also each other. 

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