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Image of Enrique Simonet's "Anatomy of the Heart" via Wikimedia Commons

Ten Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Coroner

Justin Caffier

Justin Caffier

A chat with a real-life doctor of death.

Image of Enrique Simonet's "Anatomy of the Heart" via Wikimedia Commons

We're all going to die at some point. One of you reading this probably will tomorrow. Sorry about that. The best most of us can hope for is to croak in our sleep at a ripe old age. What you want to avoid, however, is winding up on a slab at the coroner's office. If you're there, it means something has gone horribly amiss, and the authorities are investigating why you're no longer living.

Death, especially the sort of unnatural death that lands people on coroners' tables, is clearly an endlessly fascinating topic. But for all the true crime, procedurals, and ripped-from-the-headlines series out there, the work of a coroner is still fairly inscrutable to most of us. I got in touch with Dr. William Clarke, the coroner of the East Baton Rouge Parish in Louisiana to see what it's like to poke and prod corpses for a living.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

VICE: What is the most gruesome thing you've ever seen on the slab?
Dr. Clark: You can imagine that's probably the most common question I get at this job. I can't say if there's a most gruesome, since we deal with a lot of death and it [is usually of a criminal nature]. It's something other than natural, meaning it can be a homicide, accident, or suicide. Or sometimes it's undetermined. Subsequent to that, it's usually untimely when you're in those categories, as opposed to someone who dies of heart disease, old age, something like that. I don't know that I've ever listed one thing as most gruesome because, to me, untimely death, in and of itself, is always a bad thing.

Be honest. Do you guys ever crack jokes about a corpse's bad tattoos, genital size, or anything like that? 
Absolutely not. The whole point is being dignified about the deceased. It's our job to figure out the story of what happened to them based on the clues they've left behind about they're death because we're investigating something of a criminal nature. 

Do you ever eat lunch in the morgue like on procedural shows? That seems unsanitary and like it could contaminate evidence.
The morgue itself is a scientific laboratory, so we abide by the typical protocols. It's not like the surgeon who's removing your appendix is having a sandwich. We do the same things.

What do you do with all the organs you remove? Do you donate any?
Typically, when we remove the organs, we look at them grossly. Sometimes we take samples to do histological studies. That's where you put samples underneath the slide and examine them under a microscope. Otherwise, after those two examinations are complete, we put the organs back in the body, which is then sent back to a funeral service for final disposition, which would be either cremation or embalming and burial. You can't donate organs [from a person by the time they've reached my office]. You can donate tissue after someone has died, and that's all managed on the front end. So if the donation folks are aware of a case, and the decedent and decedent's family wishes to do that, we'll handle that. But for something like a kidney, that has to happen before someone dies because there still has to be blood flow and oxygen in it before it's removed.

What do movies and shows get wrong and right about the job?
Certainly there are a lot of fictitious things in the media. We're in south Louisiana, and the state has one of the largest movie and TV presences outside of California and Hollywood, so we have a lot of people who like to come use the morgue after hours as a set. I'll usually ask them about the scene, and they'll usually describe the same thing, which is completely fictitious.

They talk about an emotional moment where a family member is going to be brought to the back, a white sheet will be draped over the body, then removed so the the family member can identify a deceased loved one. That doesn't happen. We use modern technology in identifying people. We don't need to put a family member through that type of trauma to identify their loved one. 

If you've ever been to a funeral, those bodies have been embalmed and had cosmetics applied to them so it looks like the person is sleeping. Here, because we're a scientific lab, the body is in a more natural form, so it's not what they'd imagine, and there's no reason to put the family though seeing them like that.

The other thing is how fast things happen on TV. There's a crime, then they go to the crime scene, then they go to commercial, and they come back and they've caught the bad guy. Real life is usually a bit more time and labor intensive than that.

On the converse, they do discuss the applicable science in a lot of the programs. For the more interesting ones, people in the industry will come have discussions with us ahead of time as they're developing and writing the scene or screenplay. I'll tell them what's made up by Hollywood and what's real. Then, later, I'll watch and see they've gone and used things that we've told them about in the final product. I find they get it right more often when we're consulted.

Are you at all desensitized to violence in pop culture after seeing human bodies in this manner for so long?
I don't think you ever get desensitized. If you do the same thing over and over every day, I'd say you could get used to it, but "desensitized" is too strong a word. 

I've been working with emergency medicine for the past 17 years and the coroner for the past five years. So you see a lot of things.

What's the craziest thing you've found in a corpse's stomach or orifice?
I can't say we have removed many things, let alone something weird or crazy.

What part of the job was the hardest thing to get over when you were new at it?
That's difficult to say. My entire career I've dealt with pretty traumatic events, and I rolled right over from that into being the coroner, so there wasn't too much that was surprising.

How has being a coroner affected your view of your own mortality?
It certainly makes it that much more recognizable. And I wouldn't say I focus as much on my own mortality as I do for my family. 

I've developed a new worry where every time I hear about my investigators going out to a car wreck on the interstate, and I'm at the office and my family is off at school or wherever, it's like, God, I hope it's not one of them or someone I know. You do get a little feeling in your gut every time that happens and start making some phone calls.

"Hey, where y'all at? You're at home? OK, good."

The irony is that this job gives you a real appreciation for life because you never know when death is going to happen. It's completely unpredictable.

What don't you want to happen to your body when you die?
Well, I hope I get to live a very long life, and I wish that for everyone I interact with as well.

But once I'm dead, I won't really know or care what happens to me.