Drive-thru services helping families grieve during pandemic

Jessie Ovens's casket sits underneath a large white canopy in the parking lot of a funeral home in Kars, a village at Ottawa's rural southern edge.

The casket is surrounded by her family members, flowers and old black and white photographs showing a younger Ovens. A car pulls up beside the casket and the driver rolls down the window.

Ovens's daughter Donna McCallum approaches the car and quips to the driver, "Is this your first drive-thru?" There's a bit of soft laughter from everyone standing around the casket.

"Yes," responds the driver. 

"For us, too," McCallum says. "Hopefully the last."

She would just be laughing her head off, saying, 'You're doing it right.' - Donna McCallum, daughter of Jessie Ovens

This drive-thru visitation for Ovens, who died at 102, is also a first for Tubman Funeral Homes, which introduced the idea to allow more people to pay their respects, while respecting Ontario's COVID-19 regulations for funerals.

The current rules allow for 50 mourners to gather outside, and up to 30 per cent capacity for any indoor funeral service.

Ovens died June 10 of natural causes. She was a great-great-grandmother and a well-known fixture in her small community, where she worked and lived on a dairy farm. Her family decided the current limits on mourners wouldn't cut it if they were going to properly celebrate the life of this "grand lady."

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Rolling procession

"My mother had an amazing sense of humour, so all through the trials and tribulations of organizing this, she would just be laughing her head off, saying, 'You're doing it right,'" said Donna McCallum.

The "drive-thru" visitation was exactly what it sounds like.

Pylons set up in the parking lot of the funeral home directed vehicles into a slow procession through the parking lot. The first stop was at a book of condolences, where drivers rolled down their windows and gave their names to a staff member who signed the book on their behalf.

They then drove ahead to the white canopy and the casket. 

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"We're just going to have them stop and pay their respects, roll down the window and pay their respects to Mrs. Ovens, and say hi to the family as well," said Bruno Carchidi, president of Tubman Funeral Homes.

"We're going to ask them to pause for about 30 seconds to a minute, just so we can allow everybody to come through."

Grief in isolation extra painful

Carchidi said there's been lots of interest in the drive-thru visitations from families who delayed services in the spring because of COVID-19 restrictions. 

"During the early days of COVID-19 with restrictions, the families were isolated at home, they're grieving on their own. So grief is always hard — could you imagine complicating it more with isolation?" Carchidi asked.

In addition to visitations, the funeral home also plans to offer full drive-thru funeral services, where vehicles will face a podium set up in the parking lot and mourners will tune in to listen to the eulogy and music through a dedicated FM radio station. 

Brian Morris/CBC

While it might not be traditional, Ovens's family members said being able to have the drive-thru service "means everything" to them.

"I just wish that everybody who loses a loved one in these times could share something like this, and I hope they can," said McCallum.

"We're fortunate that we are able to have almost a traditional funeral, the kind that she wanted. Mom had her funeral planned for 20 years, so [her plan] was very traditional. But with COVID-19 and so many sad cases, we are blessed to be able to gather here with family."

'Next best thing,' pastor says

The pastor who led Ovens's service said the drive-thru experience still delivers the connection people are looking for.

"I look at it as it's the next best thing, as opposed to nothing," said Bruce Peterkin.

"This drive-thru enables a large group ... the chance to say goodbye and to pay their respect to the family. So it does help ... because that connectivity is so important, and it strengthens their faith."

Brian Morris/CBC

McCallum noted that while her mother's drive-thru visitation was a first for Tubman, her father's funeral nearly three decades ago was the first service to be held at the Kars location, period.

"Dad was the first service here in 1992, and it was just something to be the first. And mom now has the first drive-thru. So we've set a standard. [Mom] had a hearty, hearty laugh, and she would be pleased."