Ancaster mom’s ashes lost in mail
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Vivian Campbell went missing before she was found dead. Now she's missing again.
The cremated remains of the 87-year-old Ancaster grandmother have been lost in the mail.
Canada Post transported the parcel over the border and handed it off to the United States Postal Service (USPS), but it was an empty container with an open lid that arrived at a depot in Denver, Colorado.
It's a depot often referred to as the Dead Mail Centre.
The USPS has 40 unclaimed containers of cremains. Some have been in its possession more than 50 years, says spokesperson David Rupert.
What makes this loss considerably worse is the Dodsworth and Brown Funeral Home in Ancaster knew for two weeks that Vivian was missing before notifying her family.
"Those ashes are sacred," says her daughter, Gwyn Campbell, a professor in Virginia. "I'm wondering what I'll put in the ground."
Vivian was bright and curious, from the tiny town of Buffalo, Wyoming. She earned a geology degree in the late 1940s. Her rock collection is strewn throughout her house.
She married Colin Campbell, an engineer, and they travelled the world, living in Scotland before setting in Ancaster in the 1960s, when he became a professor at McMaster University. He died five years ago.
Vivian continued to live in their home, with a personal care worker checking in three times a week.
Last Oct. 30, Vivian went for a stroll and never returned. A massive police search ensued.
On Nov. 2, Vivian's body was found two kilometres from her house.
Following Vivian's wishes and her prepaid funeral plan with Dodsworth and Brown, she was taken to White Chapel Crematorium.
Vivian's journey after that is largely a mystery.
A small portion of her ashes was placed in a vial for Gwyn, who has a similar container containing her father's ashes. She plans to scatter those in Scotland.
The bulk of Vivian's ashes were to be sent to the only funeral home in her hometown to be placed alongside her husband's, and the remains of her parents and siblings.
Somebody — staff at White Chapel or Dodsworth and Brown — placed most of Vivian's cremains in a plastic bag inside a plastic container to prepare it for mailing. It is unclear exactly how they were packaged and sealed and what paperwork was included.
All cremains must travel by truck, says Canada Post spokesperson Anick Losier.
Though they should be sent by registered mail — requiring signatures — this did not happen.
The service's tracking system shows Vivian's urn started its trek at 11:53 a.m., Nov. 8. and was processed at 1:53 a.m. the next day in Toronto. It went through customs quickly and seemingly uneventfully, at which point it came under the care of the USPS. It arrived Nov. 10 at 5:25 p.m. in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, according to Losier.
A week later, on Nov. 17 at 8:30 p.m., Vivian's urn got to Atlanta, Georgia, departing again the next day.
Then for 10 days — nothing.
On Nov. 27 the package was tracked at Denver's mail recovery centre. Rupert, from the USPS, says a mail handler noticed the hinged lid of the container was open and its contents were missing.
Dave Harness picks up the trail.
For 31 years he has owned and operated the only funeral home in Buffalo, population 4,500. He is also the county coroner. About 20 times a year someone's ashes are mailed to him. They have always arrived intact. Until Vivian.
A woman from the Denver mail depot called him about a package addressed to his funeral home.
"The urn was open and it was empty," recalls Harness.
"She said, 'I'm going to send it to you.' I said, 'I don't want it. It's empty.' Well, they sent it. And I got it."
Harness has the urn, repackaged in a priority mail shipping box. He has not opened it, but can tell by the weight it is empty.
"This is absolutely devastating," he says. "It's precious cargo that should be held dear to all who touch it."
The moment Harness heard from Denver, he phoned Dodsworth and Brown and said they needed to contact Gwyn immediately.
For two weeks, Dodsworth and Brown kept the disappearance a secret.
Manager Jim Panoff told me he couldn't talk about it out of concern for Gwyn's privacy.
Even when Gwyn phoned Panoff and gave him permission to speak with me he refused, again citing his concern for Gwyn's privacy.
"It's not the appropriate forum for us to discuss this matter," he said. "It's a privacy matter."
I asked if he'd like to offer an apology to Vivian's family.
He said: "I can't discuss this any further with you. It's confidential."
This is not the first time Metroland News Service has written about Dodsworth and Brown in Ancaster.
In 2005 and 2006columns were written about its role when the bodies of two men who died at St. Peter's Hospital were switched and the wrong one was cremated. The remaining man was dressed in the other man's suit and put in his coffin. Just before mourners arrived, his widow looked into the casket and saw a stranger.
Dodsworth and Brown was investigated then by the Ontario Board of Funeral Services, and though mistakes were identified, no disciplinary action was taken.
It was the only case of body-switching in Ontario's funeral industry.
Gwyn has filed a complaint with the board against Dodsworth and Brown. It has not been dealt with.
Dodsworth and Brown did promise to reimburse Gwyn. Not for the arrangements — just for the postage. However, when weeks passed and they didn't pay up, Gwyn's lawyer wrote a letter demanding the $23.45 she was owed.
Canada Post and the USPS say they are doing everything they can to find Vivian's cremains.
"We are taking full responsibility to look for this," says Rupert of the USPS.
It has been six months since Vivian died. She wanted to rest at Willowgrove Cemetery — an old, peaceful place among trees and bull rushes.
With the people she loved.