Confessions of a Coroner

Confessions of a Coroner What's it really like in a coroner's office? The truth is, it's nothing like what you see on television.

As I stood over the railroad tracks, freezing and cold on a damp, rainy December morning, the sight was gruesome. Some kid had decided to throw himself in front of an Amtrak train -- and now I, as the coroner, was out at 3AM, trying to somehow make him whole again, so his family could bury him.

What a life.

Far from glamorous

Many who watch the 'CSI' television series think that being a coroner is glamorous work. While that might be true in some circles, for the most part, those of us who work in coroner's or medical examiner's offices find it a much more mundane and ugly line of work. There aren't any fancy laboratories with huge, clear computer screens lining the walls, nor the latest high-tech gadgets to determine if a person's last meal had more starch than protein. No, the day-to-day reality is that the coroner's office handles all the accidental deaths, as well as those of people who die alone, or without medical attention. Most of the cases are pretty boring.

Many of the deaths investigated by the coroner's office are routine, often old people who die at home, of natural causes. Then there are the homicides, accidents and suicides, which every office deals with -- but that don't happen nearly as frequently as those television shows would like you to believe. Those cases are the ugly scenes, the ones requiring the coroner's office to send out representatives to survey the scene and then begin piecing together exactly what happened. It's these days that a coroner relishes the job, since it gives us a chance to put together the pieces of a puzzle of someone's death.

In most areas, coroners are medical doctors who specialize in pathology. They choose to work with the dead, to unearth the questions of how someone died, often in the hopes of helping those left behind. Some more rural areas, however, don't have the funds to pay for a medical doctor, so the coroner's role is filled by the local funeral director, who teams with law enforcement. A pathologist will only be called in (and paid for) when they feel it's warranted. One has to wonder how often deaths are misdiagnosed in these areas, since even the best of instinct and training can't replace the medical background a pathologist brings to the table.

Often gruesome

Most coroners wish that they had the glamorous job portrayed on television. The reality is that most of them wade through death scenes, stepping around blood and body fluids, trying not to gag over the smell, all the while doing their best to make an accurate determination of what happened. The scene after any trauma is not a pretty picture, somewhat reminiscent of road kill. And as I've mentioned above, sometimes it's hard to tell what you're looking at was once human.

While many of the deaths are fairly routine, it's the "floaters" -- the severely decomposed and bloated bodies -- that test the constitution of even the most steadfast individuals. One time in a high-rise tenement, I was called on to move the remains of a woman who had weighed over 450 pounds. She had been dead in her apartment for at least a week in a heat wave. There were so many flies you couldn't even see your hand in front of your face. And, despite the initial officers on the scene opening up the windows, the odor was overwhelming. When people want to know if a coroner's job is really like television, that's the story I tell them.

Sometime heartbreaking

And then there are the children. No matter how long you're on the job, handling the deaths of children brings extra pain to the experience. Virtually everyone in the coroner's office is dedicated to finding out exactly how someone died, but they all put a little special effort into the death of a child. Even the most seasoned veterans have a hard time dealing with those cases.

So the next time you're watching the glamorous, clean and tidy forensic examinations that wrap up in a little under an hour on television, think of the "real" people in the coroner's office - the ones who will gently move your grandmother when she dies at home, alone; or who will tirelessly attempt to find the reason your Uncle Bob died suddenly in his sleep. Those are the real unsung heroes of the coroner's office.

Next: Fewer Doctors Love Their Work

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Thanks for this. I'm a highschool sophomore considering being a coroner when I'm older. I'm glad that you have no problem showing the truth of the matter. It's helpful.

February 23 2013 at 3:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Omar Torres

is there a coroner i can interview via email ?im a highschool student and my senior project is a career research paper on the career as a coroner.

May 01 2012 at 12:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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October 11 2011 at 5:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
W. Martin

My background in nursing, a natural curiosity and a desire to work with people is what enabled me to become a Medical Examiner's Investigator. The article accurately describes the realities of the scope of the job of Coroner or ME/ME Investigator. To those who question why autopsies are done or comment on the "mutilation" of the body, I would respectfully submit that autopsies, in most cases, are done to determine cause (medical) and manner (situational) of death for legal, statistical and medical reasons. In my experience, the bodies are generally treated with professional detachment and respect and cultural/religious sensitivities were considered where ever possible. Life insurance companies require an accurate cause/manner of death in order to settle claims. A good ME or coroner will ensure the decedent receives a fair and impartial investigation to determine that the death is accidental vs suicide, or that a child died of a Sudden Infant Death Syndrome rather than parental neglect or abuse. That is what made my job worth doing, knowing that I was an advocate for the deceased, ensuring their story and death was accurately documented and the family was given information in a humane and competent manner.

February 16 2011 at 3:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Carolyn Mansell

I know I could never have this job, but my cousin is pursuing this line of work and I'm happy that he is, since there's always death.

February 16 2011 at 2:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Whining ....wah wah wah. If you didn't want the job, why did you go to medical school, work hard, and then take a job as a coroner? You could have gone to work doing something else in the medical field. I'm going to follow the reasoning of 'Jerry Macguire' followed the money. I suspect the coroner is a pretty well paid position or there would have been something more glamorous in the medicine that would have paid better. But wait...could it be because you don't have to pay malpractice fees? Ummm....makes one wonder, huh?

February 16 2011 at 1:53 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Alakatt's comment
Donna Schneider

Kate, I sincerely doubt that coroners "follow the money". You don't do that type of work for money. I suspect they do it to help people in the worst times of their lives and to help those left behind. To accuse them of just not wanting to pay malpractice fees is absolutely stupid and reflects on your own character. Do you think it's possible that some people can have a passion to help people beyond life?

February 16 2011 at 2:46 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I don't think she's complaining, I think she stating facts that most of us don't even consider with a job like that. I know I wouldn't be able to do it. Especially when it would involve kids. You sound like a pretty bitter person alakatt. Are you stuck in some shitty dead end job and wish your life was better?

January 17 2012 at 9:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Took mom to ER December '02, they did bloodwork and said she had flu but admitted her due to dehydration. Later that night hospital called and wanted me to "Call It". They had been working on her for 45 minutes because they said she "Coded Out". "NO" you continue working on her until I get there. 10 minutes later it was horrible. They got her heart beating again, but feared she was already brain dead because didn't know how long she had been out before they found her. Family came in and had life support turned off next day. I/Family needed autopy for closure and what happened. To find out she had a Urinary Tract Infection that lead to her getting Sepsis. All of this would have been detected in ER if they would of only done a urinalysis. Lost mom over a $12 test. So stupid. Buried her 4 days before Christmas. I still haven't put up a Christmas tree since. Steal deal with if I would of just asked for urinalysis she would still be here. BE Pro-Active when it comes to tests and making sure they are done.

February 16 2011 at 1:29 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I'm 19 years old and I've wanted to be a coroner forever. I still have not met a coroner who has explained the steps to me in which I should take as far as education and experience warrents. It kills me to know that this job is portrayed completely wrong on television but truly, that's where my love for this field began. I researched the truth, but I'm still not out of love of being a pathologist. I live in Missouri and I know Missouri State University has a great pathology program for this type of work. I truly would love to have someone email me, who has experience in this field, to explain to me what steps I need to take in order to become this wonderful puzzle solver.

February 16 2011 at 12:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

At the mear age of 30 and white female, I was elected to serve as a County Cornoner in a small rural town of Ga for 4 years. My background was in nursing. I did attend the Coroner's school for training, but it did not completely prepare for everything, only time would do that. Many decisions and judgement calls had to be made. Many nights I was awakened to the phone ringing to notify me that a deputy would be pulling up outside my house to transport me to the scene within moments. I found that sometimes the hardest part of the case was having to interact with families and experience their grief. The death smell from the victum or autopsy lasted for days. My biggest fear was that my next victum may be a family member or close friend. I did have this happen and it was tough, but one grows from all things. I proudly served my County well for 4 years, but did not desire to run for re-election.

February 16 2011 at 12:19 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to SJA's comment
Donna Schneider

Please, if you're going to make up a story, at least use the proper spelling. That always gives it away. If you're smart enough to diagnose mode of death for some unfortunate person, you would think you would know how to spell. You are a liar and it makes it harder on the people who do these often thankless jobs. Please don't sit at your computer making up stories of your empty life. These people are important members of society that you should be grateful for.

February 16 2011 at 2:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Coroners often have thankless jobs, but necessary ones. My hat's off to those who are willing to do that type of work. However, I take exception to this particular coroner stating the obvious that reality and television are not the same, and one does not solve a case in an hour. Television hour drama programs often portray detective work that is over days or weeks, compressed into the hour timeframe. Yep th television programs are for entertainment, & it's too bad the real coroner offices don't have the same type of fantastic equipment.

February 16 2011 at 11:15 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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