Friday, February 17, 2017

A Mystery Writer's Field Trip to the Coroner's Office

My husband and I have been writing mysteries together since 2011 and many of them feature a scene or two of our detectives going to the coroner's office to look at the crime victim. We've never been to one ourselves, so we figured that it was about time to go see one instead of relying on the way it's featured in crime shows or books. My husband called our county's office and asked if they give tours.  We was pleasantly surprised when they said that tours are given once a month.  

We went on a tour a few days ago and the following is what we discovered.  Contrary to what’s portrayed on the NCIS shows, the Coroner’s office is a pretty dull place.  There isn’t a wall full of vaults containing dead bodies that can be pulled out for viewing whenever the detective comes by.  Instead, the deceased are housed in a body cooler, which is a large, smelly, ice-cold room where they unceremoniously lie on gurneys wrapped in heavy white plastic.  Their toes peek out and their belongings rest in a plastic black bag placed on their stomachs.  It is a sobering sight; one that sticks in your memory.  I was surprised to hear that some of the deceased in the room were there because they died in a car accident.  Because insurance companies want to find out if the deceased died because of the crash or for an underlying health issues such as a heart attack, the coroner is responsible for keeping them until the victims are autopsied.  Bodies are stored there for 365 days and if nobody in the family claims them, they are sent to funeral homes to be cremated.  All at the tax payers expense.

When an investigating detective wants to see a body, the coroner doesn’t pull aside a white sheet to reveal the face, as if he’s a magician saying, “Ta Da”.  In fact, the investigating detective isn’t in the same room. He watches from above in a special room where he can look down and watch as the coroner weighs various organs and catalogs them.  For a close up view, the detective can watch a TV monitor focused on the autopsy table which he can zoom in and out.  If he has any questions, he can speak into a microphone lodged in the middle of a low shelf.

My favorite part of the tour were the scenario rooms.  The coroner's office uses mock ups of crime scenes where students come in and try to figure out how the victim died.   We saw three rooms made out to look like a front room and two bedrooms.  One I particularly liked had a very realistically looking naked fat man lying on a sofa, whose his eyes bugged out and whose scrotum have ballooned up to be the size of a cantaloupe.   The room was littered with a pizza box, a bottle of whiskey, empty bottles of medication made out to different people.  The tour guide told us, "You all watch crime shows on television.  What do you think happened here?"  We all agreed that something was fishy about his death and an autopsy and further investigation was required.

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