Archive for the 'The Job' Category


“Bringing Out the Dead” (Originally Posted 2/11/2005)

I don’t know if the average person ever thinks about the issue of removing a body from a scene. Most everyone has seen a body rolled away on the news or on a crime drama by people specially “trained” to perform that task. Needless to say, there is no actual formal training. Each removal is potentially its own little training session. Training sessions are distinguished from routine removals as they are typically punctuated by variations of the phrases “That worked well” or “Don’t ever try that again.”

A best-case scenario for body removal is a 100 pound little old lady that died in bed during the night on the first floor of her house. First, she’s easy to lift. In fact, it may be possible to collapse the gurney to the same level as the bed and just slide her over wrapped in a sheet. Second, she’s already laid out flat. No need to struggle with breaking the rigor mortis in order to buckle her to the gurney. Next, she died in the night. She hasn’t been dead that long, so there may not be any foul odor until her body is moved. And lastly, she’s on the first floor, so no more than one or two steps to go up.

Now for a worst case scenario—a 350 pound man that died in bed two weeks ago on the third floor of his apartment building. Obviously the increased weight changes everything and it’s only complicated by the fact that he’s been dead for some time. It is now necessary that he be placed in a body bag in order to contain the decomposition “juices” that have accumulated just under the surface of the skin. The rigor mortis has already gone away or “passed,” but his girth still makes it difficult to zip up the body bag and to strap him to the gurney.

The only redeeming element of this scenario is that the man is in bed and not directly on the floor or (God forbid) in the bathtub. As it stands, I would lay the open body bag on the floor next to the bed. Then I would throw a bed sheet over the body to catch any decomposition juices expelled from areas of concentration ruptured during the initial move. Next, I would grab the body through the sheet, pull it from the edge of the bed, and let gravity do the rest. It’s at this point that the decomposition juice is actually helpful. It makes for a slippery surface on which it is much easier to slide a body.

Once he’s in the bag, there is still the issue of getting him to ground level. He’s already met the “250 Pound Rule” which states that “Anyone who dies in an apartment building above the first floor is guaranteed to weigh at least 250 pounds.” Hundreds of apartment buildings in this city and they seem to have all been constructed before the days of handicap accessibility.

Without an elevator, gravity is called upon once again. I am a firm believer in letting the floor do the majority of the work, so there is a lot of sliding involved—especially when it comes to stairs. Holding on tightly to the bag, I slowly allow it to slide down each flight of stairs to the ground floor. The drawback of this process in conjunction with the lack of rigor mortis results in the body slumping down into one end of the bag like an orange in a sock.

I’ve lost count of how many times I wished I had “body handlers” at my disposal like the ones that are often shown on television and in movies. Hollywood body handlers are typically two respectable looking actors with no lines that are shown moving the body from the scene on a gurney. Their manner of dress makes them look a lot like paramedics but without the sense of urgency burdening those with life-saving responsibilities.

In the real world—or at least my corner of it—the body handlers are myself, the mortician transporting the body, and anyone else willing to help. Needless to say, volunteers are usually hard to come by.

After reading the above, Douglas commented:

“You mention using the floor to do most of your work. And specifically describe a trip down the stairs. Is there not much concern that a bouncy trip down the stairs would produce new damage or obscure existing wounds making pronouncement that much more difficult?”

To which I responded:

As I reread my post, I can see where my description sounds like a scene from “Weekend at Bernie’s” with a body sliding uncontrollably down the stairs like a runaway toboggan. It’s more of a controlled slide as we ease the bag down with the help of gravity. It still requires some straining, but considerably less than carrying it the whole way down.

As such, there is minimal impact to the body. I have seen a head strike a concrete surface as a gurney fell over. There was a slight mark to the scalp but no underlying fracture present at autopsy and there was no swelling because there was no blood pumping.

About the only trauma that might occur would be an abrasion to the body from rubbing against the inside of the bag. In this case there would be very little “reaction” in the skin tissue–that is to say the abraded area of the skin would have a parchment-like appearance as opposed to the typical appearance of aggravated tissue that has started to heal itself.

As for obscuring the wounds, they should have already been documented before removing the body.

Couches are easier to move down stairs. They may be bulkier, but they are much more rigid and the weight is even distributed. Even a body in full rigor will sag in the middle making the body seem much heavier. I wouldn’t be surprised if an undertaker was the first person to coin the phrase “dead weight.”

Hope that answers your question…

A Douglas


“Autopsy Technician / Pathology Assistant Employment”

Found your site today as I tried to pursue information on ‘Forensic Autopsy Technician’ involving education required and position availability. I’ve been an RN for 30 years and this aspect of medicine has always intriqued me. Early in my VA career, they would call me down to autopsies to observe, because they knew I was so interested. I’m seriously considering this career detour. I haven’t found any concrete guidelines for educational guidelines in my research. Any advice? Thank you!

Maureen Santamaria


I’ve gotten this question quite a lot over the last year, so I’ll respond to your comment in post form in case my answer is helpful to anyone else out there.

I’d start by calling your local Medical Examiner/Coroner office to find out if they hire their Autopsy Technicians/Pathology Assistants directly or if you have to go through a state or county agency. If they do there own hiring, pay them a visit to deliver a resume or fill out an application. This gives them a chance to see that you are professional and genuinely interested and aren’t someone just looking to meet their weekly unemployment application quota. It may make the difference between your application ending up on someone’s desk rather than the “to be shredded” bin.

There really isn’t any formal training available so it isn’t required in most cases. Reason being, even someone with minimal formal medical training can make equal or greater money doing something far less repulsive. If you start off with a salary in the low 20’s (even less in some parts of the country), you’re making the industry average. High school degrees or equivalents seem to be the norm because the pay is so unattractive. The only real financial benefit comes with the associated benefits and job security—total population and subsequent deaths only increase each year.

Most of the training for eviscerating bodies comes after you’ve already gotten the job. It helps to have some past experience in working on or around dead bodies or some exposure to some pretty nasty sights and smells. I guess that’s why individuals with previous employment in funeral services or as medical orderlies seem to succeed where others might quit before becoming “acclimated” to the tasks the job demands.

The moral of the story is if you’re looking for a job that:

–requires direct physical contact with some of the more questionable members of society as well as the potentially life threatening infectious diseases their tissue and fluids may contain…

–requires you to see and do things that common sense dictates you not share with the general public for fear of being regarded as an insensitive monster…

–causes many people to quit the minute they are faced with making their first cut on a decomposed body…

–provides a unique learning experience on a daily basis and allows you to feel as though you are contributing to an investigative process that is bigger than any single person or agency, then this is the job for you.

Good luck to you.

A Douglas


“Crapped Out”

When I first went into this field, I was amazed at the number of deaths that occurred in certain categories. For example, I never knew more deaths were attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome than to abuse. On one hand, it appears the media likes to focus more on the abuse cases because they make for more sensational reporting than a babies that just unexpectedly die in their sleep. On the other hand, it’s good for the parents of the SIDS baby because they are able to grieve in peace.

I also never knew so many people committed suicide. Unless there’s an article in the paper discussing suicide rates, they really aren’t that publicized. Family members and funeral directors are understandably reluctant to include this detail in someone’s obituary. Unless someone takes their own life in a public setting or a very unusual way—like jumping off a building or “Suicide by Cop,” the news media seems fairly reluctant to cover suicides.

But the category that has continued to amaze me the most is one that you won’t find listed among mortality statistics—toilet deaths.

My assumption is that we as a civilized people are naturally inclined to head for the toilet whether our intestinal discomfort is heading north or south. It’s quite common for family members to offer that their loved one had been experiencing nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea in the days preceding their death. Unfortunately, this history is usually evident upon entering the bathroom. Even drug users exhibit this behavior with drugs on board. I’ve moved plenty of bodies from bathrooms that still bore tourniquets or syringes in their veins. Others have left vomitus on or around the toilet containing macerated pills.

If I never again have to work a scene where someone is dead on the toilet, in front of the toilet, in the toilet, or wedged between the toilet and tub or cabinet it will be too soon. I’ve never seen a cop run from anything, but when a toilet comes free from its base and tips over, you’d think the contents of the bowl were filled with hot lava.

I’ve just about come to the conclusion that there should be federally mandated warning stickers placed on toilet seats—“If you are over 40—don’t fight it!” In a world where manufacturers feel legally compelled to tell people not to use a blow dryer in the shower, they should feel equally compelled to warn people about the risks of breath control and steady pushing or educate them on the benefits high-fiber diets.


“Dirty Little Secrets”

On most apparent natural deaths, patrol officers may be the only ones dispatched to the scene with instructions to notify police investigators if the M.E./Coroner (ME/C) finds anything out of the ordinary. As such, it is the responsibility of the ME/C to search the scene for anything that may have played a role in the death.

When I first started, it felt a little odd going through the personal belongings of a complete stranger, but I soon learned that many times these searches yielded as many noteworthy—and sometimes unusual—findings as the bodies themselves.

Pill bottles and drug paraphernalia are two of the most common discoveries. The medications that are prescribed give some insight to the medical history of the deceased as well as the name of the person’s physician. A quick count of the pills can tell whether the deceased has been taking the medication as directed or not. Bottles of the same medication prescribed by different doctors within the same time period can indicate a history of “pill seeking.” Bottles of medication prescribed to people not residing at the scene can indicate illegally procured pills.

I recall one scene in particular where I had gone through four of a chest of five drawers and wished I had stopped. When I opened the bottom drawer, there were three Walmart sacks filled with old prescription bottles, each containing medication. Because I found them, I had to document them, take custody of them, and inventory them upon returning to the morgue. I also seem to recall the autopsy took less time than the inventory.

Depending on the person’s lifestyle, drug paraphernalia may or may not be well-hidden. Thinking to myself, “If I were a doper, where would I put my stash?” has proved to be fairly successful. Using this method, I’ve managed to find all manner of objects that have been converted into drug devices.

I worked a scene where a man was being allowed to live in a camper trailer in his soon to be ex-wife’s driveway. She’d thrown him out because of his drug addiction, but allowed him to stay in the trailer provided he didn’t bring any drugs on the premises. Instantly suspecting that her husband failed to obey this condition, I searched the trailer anyway. Reaching into an odd hole punched in the wall, I removed a cigarette box containing two small bags of dope.

Other times the family waiting in the living room is genuinely surprised to learn that I found drugs or paraphernalia in their loved one’s bedroom. There’s nothing quite like being present when a family learns for the first time that grandma knew how to score some weed—or when they realize it was a family member that supplied it.

These searches sometimes reveal all manner of pornography and sexual devices. Perhaps the strangest thing I recall finding was a shoebox full of Polaroids that showed the bottom of hundreds of feet. In most cases, unless the death appears to have resulted from an autoerotic event or the pornography is illegal, I just shake my head, move on to the next drawer, and keep my mouth shut. I damn sure don’t want to be around when the family learns about that side of grandma.


“An Instrument of Death”

I recall years ago seeing people on television or out in public having important conversations on their cell phones. That was long before every teenager, grandparent, and civil servant succumbed to the technological appeal of staying connected with everyone other teenager, grandparent, and civil servant outside of North Korea. Back when ownership of a cell phone was the societal equivalent of driving a Mercedes. Now when I see three people seated at the Food Court having three independent cell phone conversations, it seems cell phone ownership has become the societal equivalent of riding a Huffy.

Back then, I always wondered what it must be like to have a job so important that a cell phone was critical. One of those jobs that required a person to be available at all times. Something impressive like a corporate executive, a Hollywood mogul, or a government agent.

Now that I have one—the job and the phone—I don’t wonder about that sort of thing anymore. Now I hate my phone. Keep in mind that 95% of the time that my phone rings it means that somebody has died. I’ve even developed an aversion to answering my phone at home. The only people that call my home phone tend to be telemarketers, but I guess every now and then I like to talk on something that doesn’t accelerate the growth of the tumor on the right side of my head.

I don’t even know why I keep the land line. It’s like a dog that never gets played with, but the owner keeps buying food for it every month. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t tear up the furniture or crap in the house when I’m out later than usual. Everyone knows they can connect directly to my hip 24/7 and I’ll answer unless I’m gloved up or in the shower. Come to think of it, I’ve worked plenty of scenes where both conditions applied. (See my post “Suicide Foresight.?)

The best part about cell phones–besides the fact I haven’t paid a cell phone bill in years–is that just about every cop has a cell phone. Gone are the days of trying to return a call to a private residence and getting a busy signal for an hour at 3 a.m. because the family has the phone tied up. The police are also able to use their cell phones instead of their radios on certain scenes in order to keep the media from hearing about the incident over their police scanners. Inevitably some citizen sees all the police activity and calls the local station’s “When you see news happen? hotline using their cell phone.

For anyone going in to this line of work, I have a bit of advice–be sure you get the optional phone insurance. I’ve noticed that the smaller the cell phones get, the fewer impacts against the bedroom wall they seem able to withstand.


“Knowledge is Power??

I suppose everyone at one time or another has learned of something that in retrospect they realized they could have gone their whole life without knowing. For some, it may have been an embarrassing family secret they were privy to. For others, calculus—or in my case, basic algebra—may be the one thing they considered to be useless knowledge.

Over the years, this job has provided countless opportunities for me to wish I had remained ignorant of information that I had been presented with. Technically, these details were knowledge, but not in the sense that they were of any practical use. The most recent example of one of these opportunities occurred just last week.

I spent the better part of an afternoon reading through police reports, child welfare reports, and witness statements pertaining to the latest child death I had to investigate. Without going into specifics, the information contained therein chronicled a pattern of abuse that would have lead any reasonable person to conclude that death for this particular child was inevitable.

Granted, all deaths are inevitable, but most of us are afforded the opportunity to live long enough that we are able to comprehend the concept of mortality. This particular child barely lived long enough to comprehend the concept of sitting up, but spent the last several months of its life in a vegetative state that prohibited it from doing so.

After reading the particulars of the case, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What good did that do me?? Sure, I was able to determine the circumstances surrounding the critical injury that the child received. But beyond that, knowing detailed information about the day-to-day life of the child, the way it was treated, and the way the parents acted was of little use to me.

When I first started investigating deaths, having special knowledge of restricted details surrounding a case was one of the more enjoyable aspects of this job. Family and friends were eager to know what they hadn’t seen on the news or read in the papers. There have even been times when this knowledge has been downright amusing. To this day, there is nothing better than watching a reporter on the news give details that aren’t even close to what really happened, or to watch them try and create a story out of the scant details that the police spokesperson has provided.

Most everyone has watched (or avoided watching) news stories about some heinous act committed against a child on the evening news. These segments are usually limited to 45 seconds, so the reporters can only hit the high points and seem eager to use shocking keywords like “sodomy? and “child pornography? that are more likely to attract an audience. These generic terms are easily understood by the general public and elicit comments from viewers such as, “How could someone do that to a child?? or “I hope they rot in jail!?

Regardless of the impact such stories have on us initially the truth is that unless the story is particularly shocking, we forget it in no time at all. Even producers seem to move on when the next big story comes along. I’ve often wondered how much more of an impact these stories would have on viewers if the reporters were to pass on the specific details of the case. Maybe passing on such details to the general public would educate those among us that don’t realize grabbing a baby by its ankles and swinging it against the bedroom wall like a baseball bat is an inappropriate form of punishment. Those people are out there, and they are not all “drugged up? at the time of the incident. Some are just that stupid.

I find myself wondering, “What have I gained from this knowledge?? Did I develop a more loathsome opinion of those that resort to violence against defenseless children rather than use basic coping skills I used to assume were innate characteristics of being human? Not really. That bar has been set pretty low for quite some time.

I wonder if the child had any awareness that it was in a vegetative state. I wonder if the child was sad about being in such a state or simply relieved to have been out of an abusive environment no matter what the conditions. I wonder these things, and others, but not for very long. The sad fact is that, no matter how in-depth my knowledge of this case may be, it is only a matter of time before it too slips away into the mental abyss of details of the hundreds of cases that came before it.


“Beyond the Gory?

When I talk to people about death investigation, I usually don’t go into a lot of detail about things I have done or seen. Their imagination seems to have given them a much more graphic impression about what my job entails. Most everyone assumes the job is stressful simply because of the routine exposure to traumatic and unnatural deaths. I used to assume the same, but I have since learned that one of the most stressful aspects of this job has nothing to do with gore.

When I first started out, one of the most appealing aspects of death investigation was the element of unpredictability. I never knew where and when the next death was going to occur or what the circumstances surrounding the death were going to be.

This aspect also leads to a great deal of variation from day to day. Some days are non-stop and seemingly never ending as I go from one death to the next. Many times I’ve gone all day without a single death being reported, and within minutes of crawling into bed I’ve been called with multiple scenes on opposite sides of the city that have kept me out the rest of the night. Most days I may not have to do anything during my shift. That sounds great—for me and for the public at large—but sitting around essentially waiting for someone to die is an awkwardness that escapes description.

Never knowing what I was in store for on any given day was once the most exciting aspect of this job, but it wasn’t long before the “honeymoon? was over. Now the most exciting aspect has become the most annoying aspect.

Years later I find myself fantasizing while I’m driving to a self-inflicted shotgun wound at three in the morning. I fantasize about what it must be like to be a normal person with a normal job. The kind of person that goes to sleep after the 11 o’clock news and—bladder notwithstanding—stays asleep until the alarm goes off in the morning. The kind of person that goes to work and comes home from work at the same time everyday. The kind of person that when they get home, they stay home. I even find myself fantasizing about what people with normal jobs fantasize about.

Blood and guts aside, death investigation was—and continues to be—the antithesis of what I consider to be a “normal? job. The kind of job where a person produces something tangible or at the very least goes to work with established tasks to accomplish. Instead I feel like an auto mechanic that was hired to respond to every car breakdown in the city wherever and whenever one occurs. Like a conventional auto mechanic, I can make diagnostic impressions, but unlike an auto mechanic, every vehicle I look at is beyond repair.