In 2020, David Campbell, Sr., was elected Chatham County’s coroner, and took over the role Jan. 1, 2021. A Savannah native, Campbell has spent the past 40 years in the funeral industry, opening his own funeral home with his son in 2006. He still works part-time for his funeral home.

It hasn’t been the easiest couple of years. Campbell began the new role in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s found himself adjusting to his new responsibilities while advocating for improvements to the county’s forensic-related amenities. 

He sat down with The Current for a Q&A in the new coroner’s office in Garden City. 

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

So first, tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m David Campbell. I’m married and I have 4 kids, 13 grandkids. Been in the funeral business for the last 44 years. I own my own funeral home, which is Campbell & Sons. Being in the funeral business is what prompted me to run for coroner. I always wanted to work at the coroner’s office, even alongside my funeral home. When I heard that the former coroner was retiring, I sought information to go out and run for Chatham County Coroner.

What exactly does a county coroner do? How is this different from a medical examiner?

A medical examiner is a licensed doctor and they can perform autopsies. A coroner is an elected person that is used to investigate the deaths and prepare them for the medical examiner. The coroner can give the time of death and the cause of death – they are the pronouncer of the death. 

How often do you call the medical examiner? Do you have one close?

About 60% of the time. We have one right in Pooler.

Your original training is in funeral directing and embalming. How does that differ from what you’re doing now as a coroner? Did you have to go back to school? 

Well, once you are elected, you and your deputies have to go to a 40-hour training in Forsyth, and every year after that, you have to do a 24-hour training. So that’s how we got our training in and then everything else was just common knowledge.

We take information from the family or witnesses, this person had a heart condition, this person had high blood pressure, this person was diabetic. But either way, I always subpoena medical records. 

What would you say was the biggest learning curve transitioning from a funeral director to a coroner? What challenged you?

Well, in the funeral home, I was more used to working directly with the family, and that’s planning and coordinating. [Being a coroner] is more of an investigation. The funeral industry is more of a compassionate service, even though you have to have compassion as a coroner too because there are times you have to make death notifications. In the funeral home, I don’t have to worry about making a death notification. 

Can you give me an example of a challenge in your work?

Suppose we just roll up and publicize that this was “Jane Doe” that actually got killed in this automobile accident, and come to find out this was somebody else. We have to make sure of who we are investigating. We have to have proof.

Has there been one particular instance or story that’s stuck with you since you’ve started this role?

I think the saddest thing to me was the 2 year old child that they found on the landfill. I think that was the toughest situation that we’ve encountered. Other than that, there were a lot of other horror stories and a lot of other horrible horrific deaths. But, it was nothing that I have never seen before. 

What kind of work do you like better — being a coroner or funeral director?

I like this work better. Not that I don’t like the funeral business, because the funeral business is my livelihood. That’s all I’ve ever known how to do for the last 40 years before I became coroner. I think it was time, I was beginning to get burnt out. So it’s a better role for me to be working with my son, than for my son to be working behind me. He’s got younger ideas. He’s got more patience. 

Backing up a little bit, you started this role right as we went into Covid. Would you say that you had no idea what was coming your way when you ran for this role?

I had no idea that this thing was coming this way. I became elected in 2020, but I started Jan. 1, 2021. Every case we went on, we went to so many houses… we had to start administering the Covid test on a lot of bodies.

Did you have families coming up to you saying they don’t want Covid on the death certificate?


What did you do?

I told them that we had to put what it was. And they did not want Covid on the death certificates. 

Why? What was their reasoning?

It was just that private. They thought that that [Covid death] was a degrading death. 

The county had come to me, the office of the county commission, and one of the things they asked me was: What did I want from the county? I needed more space, more privacy. Chatham County did not have a morgue of its own. Whenever there was a body that had to be stored, we had to call around to hospitals and funeral homes to see if they would refrigerate bodies for us.

Before you were coroner, would you be refrigerating bodies for the previous coroner in your funeral home?

Yeah, if I had to. I came in right during the pandemic, so the hospitals were swamped. And they could not take any bodies. But I was able to work out an agreement with the Candler Hospital; they opened their doors to us. When they couldn’t accommodate us, there were a few funeral homes in Chatham County that had refrigeration, and we rented their refrigeration, including my funeral home, but for no charge because I felt like it was a conflict of interest. 

There were times the funeral homes were full because it was still during the pandemic. So it was just a battle. It’d be 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning, you’re calling around to funeral homes, waking people up when the hospital turned you down and they don’t have any room. 

Where did you go from here?

We were able to get a cooler trailer and we were able to store bodies in this trailer. Most of the time the trailer was running over with Covid deaths. 

How many bodies could you store there?

We could put about 35 bodies. But it was such an inconvenience because this trailer was up off the ground. Several months later, the county was able to get us a smaller trailer, but it was more convenient because it was set on the ground. We did that for about a year. 

[Chatham County Manager Michael] Kaigler told me we got a building out there in Garden City. And this complex here is where I used to work! The first job I ever had was at the grocery store [that used to be in the building], then the county purchased it years later. And next door to me right here is where they had a Chinese restaurant. Over there, when you walked in the front door, was a check cashing place. My office sits in the Chinese place. They completely restored this place, made office space and brought it up to the state-of-the-art. 

And the morgue is right there in the back?

Yes. They finished it in November of 2022, and we moved in December 2022. 

We went to the GBI lab (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) in Pooler to look at their refrigeration, and we have the same refrigeration that they have—we just have a smaller size. We got some racks that are coming in that we can put about 40 bodies on, then we got tables for 10. So we’ll be able to hold about 50 bodies at one time, which unless there’s a major disaster, we will never need to store 50 bodies at one time. 

So you’re in your office and then step back and do your job back there [in the morgue]? 

Right. Over the years, there were limited outside calls that the coroner would go to. Once they [the police] pick the body up, they have to take the body either to the emergency room to be pronounced dead or they have to bring it by the coroner’s office, which is not the proper way. 

The proper way is that the coroner has to go out on the scene because in the coroner’s investigation, he’s supposed to interview witnesses or family or friends, take photos. He’s supposed to investigate the scenery. He’s not in charge of the scene but he’s in charge of the body. The officers are in charge of the scene. We have a great team of police officers, we work well with them, and the detectives are awesome, smart and hard-working. I’m also here making sure that we catch up on death certificates and all reports.

How often would you say you get a call to go out to the scene? Like any other emergency civil servant when you get a call, do you have to drop everything and just go?

Right. We get calls daily. I have three other deputies, if it’s just a natural death, then my deputies will go. If it’s a homicide, motor vehicle accident, any kind of trauma or suspicious death, I will accompany them on that call. It’s easier for two people to be there. But unfortunately, the county will not pay two deputies on one call, so I would be that second person [who is not paid for the call]. 

On top of that, I prefer to be the one to go [to the scene] because the people in the county elected me and I should be visible as much as possible. It is just impossible, or difficult, for me to make every call because we do about anywhere between 1,200 and 1,500 calls a year. 

What are some of the things you do when you’re not working around bodies? How do you step away from this kind of work and enjoy yourself?

My wife and children, and my grandkids, they are my heart. We used to go out to dinner, it’s a total of 19 when all of us go. Since the pandemic, you cannot find reservations for 20 people at one time. But we’ll cook-out on the grill or something at home. I like to do that. 

And when I do that, then my deputies will cover for me, but there are still times they called me on the phone. So it’s like, if I’m off, I’m still working. If I go on a cruise, if I fly out somewhere, my cell phone is with me and I’m answering it — but, I enjoy that.

Audrey Gibbs is a summer fellow for The Current covering investigations. She recently graduated from Columbia Journalism School in New York City, where she received her Master of Science in journalism....