Allison Visits the Coroner

on February 14, 2008

Last Friday, thanks to my friend and romantic suspense author Brenda Novak and Anna S., I joined them and another friend Regan T. on a tour of the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office. They do not regularly give tours, so this was an extra special treat.

Though I have always wanted to be a writer, there was a time when Quincy, MD was popular that I wanted to be a forensic pathologist. I thought it would be really cool to figure out how people died . . . and of course to solve crimes on the side. But in eighth grade, we dissected fetal pigs and though I wasn’t grossed out by it, I didn’t have the warm fuzzies over the thought of cutting open a dead human.

In the back of my mind, I feared I wouldn’t be able to do it. That being around the dead all day would be depressing and difficult. Or worse, that I would physically get ill.

I am pleased that I was wrong. At least, viewing the job didn’t disturb me. (They didn’t let me participate in an autopsy.)

Okay, it probably is not too cool to say that I had fun at the coroner’s office. Instead, I’ll say that I had a very interesting and educational afternoon learning about how the entire operations runs–from the role of the administration, the deputy coroners, and the pathology staff.

Every county is different. Some coroners are elected, some are appointed, and some are hired. In smaller counties it is not uncommon to have an elected “Sheriff Coroner.” In Sacramento, the coroner is primarily an administrative head who handles the financial responsibilities of the department as well as the politics and staff issues. The deputy coroners are those who go out to the scene and investigate the manner of death in the field. They also handle follow-up issues, finding and notifying next of kin, gathering medical and other records of the deceased, and a host of other things. In essence, they are the external investigator.

The forensic staff is responsible for the internal investigation and the management of the dead. They receive the bodies and have a list of tasks before the body even goes into storage. They weigh the body, do a basic visual exam, log them in, among other things. They have the onsite coroner’s report and know whether the death was a homicide or not (homicide’s have red folders and the bodies are sealed in secure body bags to not only preserve evidence, but to prevent tampering.)

There is a checklist of things to do based on a wide variety of scenarios. For example, if it was an attended death (i.e. ill in the hospital), then they do an external exam and may (or may not) do an autopsy. Autopsies are required in some cases even when the death is attended (such as when the decedent is under 14.) Some of the procedures are required by state law; others by county law; and still others are department policy.

The facility is clean and sterile, but certainly not the fancy digs you see on CSI. One large room is set up with multiple stations (if I remember correctly, six), each with their own equipment, ventilation, sinks and lighting. There is a separate room for homicides where the autopsy can be visually recorded, and where there’s a room with a viewing window so that the investigators can watch, ask questions, or direct the technicians to look at something outside the norm.

We went into this room and were a bit surprised to see an autopsy in progress. It was amazing. Our guide–the head tech in charge of all the forensic pathologists (I can’t remember his exact title and I’m too lazy to go find his card)–explained what they were doing and why. We observed for about twenty minutes. The one thing I’ll remember most was when they turned the victim’s body over and there were multiple stab wounds on his back. At least a dozen. Someone had stabbed this guy in the back over and over. But there were also defensive wounds on his forearms, long slashes that told me at least that he had put up with a fight. The pathologist can determine with a high degree of accuracy not only which stab wounds were made pre- and post-mortem, but also the order of the stab wounds based on the internal damage.

So I figured he was attacked, defended himself, stabbed in the chest, and when he was down and either dead or dying, someone had repeatedly stabbed him in the back. Cruel. I hope the cops got the guy who did it. And that, in a nutshell, is probably why I wouldn’t have made a good forensic pathologist–I would have wanted to know what happened in the end. Determining cause of death and collecting evidence is a necessary and valuable part of the process–but if it was me, I’d be calling the deputy coroner every day, “Did they catch the guy? Who did it? What happened?”

They handle more than just murder, of course. They have “natural” deaths and accidents. Their job is to find out the cause of death–and in that end, they help the living.

One reason I was so excited for the tour is that PLAYING DEAD takes place in Sacramento and I have an autopsy scene (which, after the tour, I have to rewrite. I didn’t get the big stuff wrong, but some of the details? Um, yeah.) One of my victims has been dead for three months in the Sacramento River. I really wanted to know what such a body would look like. While I didn’t get to view a three month body, I did see someone who drowned, probably 24 hours before. Our guide explained what some of the differences would be, but the bodies would have the same general color.

I learned decomp isn’t as bad as I thought, though I was assured by the guide that in some cases it was much worse than what we smelled in the decomp freezer (they store decomposing bodies separately from the other bodies.)

They have a deep freeze–40 below–for bodies they have to keep for awhile (for a lot of different reasons.) Their regular freezer is one large room and the bodies are on gurneys and stacked three or four high. Almost all of the bodies were already autopsied and waiting for pick-up. I asked how many bodies do they have in the facility at any one time. 300. I asked how long did it take for them to be processed–brought in, examined, autopsied and released. 24 hours. Amazing. They have a neuro-specialist who comes in weekly to examine brains, a forensic anthropologist who is on call to examine bones, and a forensic dentist.

There is so much more I could tell you. They have a donate-a-body program with UC Davis, most of the forensic technicians and assistant technicians were women, and everyone there was friendly. These people are amazing. Seriously.

A few things that did sort of creep me out . . .

* What happens to fat in your body when you decompose. Think of it turning to wesson oil and leeching through your skin as your skin sloughs off. Definitely made me want to lose weight.

* What happens to your body underground even when you’re embalmed. Nothing can keep out water forever. And water does a lot of damage, especially mold. Definitely made me seriously consider cremation.

* Feet. In the freezer, everyone is more or less covered up with a white sheet (except for homicides which are in body bags.) But everyone’s feet are exposed. Most are not pretty. Some feet are downright bizarre. I’m definitely getting pedicures regularly from now on.

I could write a much longer blog 🙂 But I’ll spare you. I love on-the-job research, so to speak. Next up for me? The FBI Citizens Academy starting in April. Yeah! I can hardly wait.

I’ll leave you with this question: if you could shadow one job for a day–something you’ve never done–what would it be?