October 29, 2012 by jooshanoosh
I had never seen the young men get so excited about an activity. Except when they planned a Scouting “High Adventure” camp to California that included Six Flags Magic Mountain, a Dodger game, a trip to the beach, and a hamburger eating contest at Tommy’s. But I digress.
We all became quite giddy about this idea. Somewhere in my mind – the part of my mind where I am still a teenager – I imagined this whole thing to be, in a word, AWESOME. The next day I called the office to arrange a tour. I talked to Steve, the “Head Coroner,” and asked if it would be okay for us to take a tour. Unfazed, he agreed. I told him that we would like to come by around 7 p.m., and he explained that he wouldn’t be there, but he would let the “Night Coroner” know we were coming by.
We pulled up to the Coroner’s Office just as the sun was setting. The parking lot was deserted. The building looked decrepit. And this was not the wealthiest neighborhood in town. I imagine they set up the Coroner’s Office here so that they could be near business. The way ice cream trucks drive through young neighborhoods. I looked at this building and thought, “The dead people in that building are the lucky ones.”
We walked up to the front door and knocked. And knocked. And knocked. Nobody. I pulled out my cell phone and called the number I had. A gentleman answered. I assumed it was the Night Coroner that Steve had told me about.
“Hello?” he said.
“Hi, this is Ken Craig.”
“Yes.” (Clearly my name was not getting me in the door.)
“Uhm, did Steve tell you I would be by with some youth from my church?”
“No.” (Clearly this was the end of our discussion.)
“Oh. Well, we’re here.”
“Well, we are looking at different professions throughout the valley, and the youth were interested in seeing the County Coroner’s Office.”
“Why?” (Completely incredulous.)
“It’s just something different than anything they’ve studied, and they’re interested.”
(Long pause.) “Why?”
“Are you going to let us in?”
“Uhm…I’ll be there in a second.”
We waited. He finally opened the door and actually peeked out at us before opening the door all the way. Like HE should be afraid of US. Dude, you work with dead bodies for a living! He stepped out into the twilight, and you should have seen this guy. He looked like he needed a good chiropractor. His alignment was off, and one shoulder was higher than the other. Also, and I am not making this up, one of his eyes wandered…just a bit. If he had wrung his hands together and mumbled “Walk this way,” I would have wet myself right there in front of teenagers.
Once inside, we are standing in what is essentially a garage; where the ambulances and other vehicles back in to drop off the gurneys. The gurneys with dead bodies. The guy half-throws his arms in the air and says, “Well, what is it you’re interested in hearing about? The science of it? The forensics?” And just like that, our young men turn yellow. Suddenly they are mute, and they are looking at the ground, shuffling their feet, as if they were at a Stake Dance. Now I feel like some kind of sick-o. Like this guy’s suspicions of how weird we are, are suddenly validated. “So, you came to see the dead bodies, did you?! Well LOOK AT THEM! DID YOU GET A GOOD LOOK!? SICK-O!”
So I start making-up questions. And this guy holds nothing back. Launches into everything from which bodies come to the coroner’s office (homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths), who investigates them, weird deaths he’s seen, how the bodies are weighed, etc. And then…the moment you’ve all been waiting for…he takes us into The Cooler. There are about half a dozen dead bodies on gurneys, a wafer thin sheet covering them. I can still see some of them to this day. A female with long red hair that looked like it had been brushed up – so that her face was covered, but you saw all this red hair coming out the top. She had to have been in her thirties, I’m guessing. Long fingernails. Next to her was a man with bullet holes down the side of his body. And if the visuals weren’t bad enough…the smell. My gosh, the smell. It gave your gag reflexes a workout.
Behind the room we were in was another cooler room. The Cooler Part 2: This Time It’s Personal. This room was for bodies that had not yet been identified and had been there for quite some time.
“What’s the longest you’ve kept an unidentified body?” I asked.
“Well,” he started, “we got a new Head Coroner last year, and when he found out we had bodies in there for OVER 20 YEARShe ordered us to have them buried.”
“I see.” I answered. “Who’s ready for that hamburger eating contest?”
He showed us another room where the Coroners work on bodies that are unidentifiable when they are brought in. To the point where families are not allowed to get an up-close look-see. There is video equipment in the room, and the coroner works on the body while the family watches from another room, removed from the upsetting nature of being so close.
Afterwards he took us into the business office area of the building and gave us a good talking to. He explained to the boys that it takes a special kind of person to go into coroner work. (Very special, I’m sure.) And he discouraged them from doing it, talking about horrible things that he’d seen. He answered a few questions from us, and then got a phone call about a body coming in. How many total did that make for a Wednesday in October? Seventeen. Seventeen bodies in one day. And that was before the night was over. Take THAT CSI.
Our trip that year had become legendary among the young men. And the next year, of course, there was an entirely new crop of young men anxious to be equally freaked-out. So we called and made the appointment. You could feel the energy on the way down to the place. When we got there, they escorted us all into a large room, showed us a short video, told us about the profession, and that was it. No tour. No dead bodies. The best I could figure was that the previous year we had caught Night Coroner John off-guard that fateful night, and not really knowing what else to do, he gave us a tour that the public is not generally privy to.
When I went up to our speaker at the end of his presentation I said, “How come we didn’t get the tour? We were here last year with John, and he gave us a full tour.”
“Who?” he asked, his eyes growing big.
“John,” I answered. “John, the Night Coroner. He gave us a tour last year.”
“That’s impossible,” the man said. “We don’t have a Night Coroner.”
“Well, you did then. He had one shoulder higher than the other, wandering eye, mustache…”
The man’s face went pale and he sat down. “You’re talking ‘bout Ol’ John McNeil,” he whispered. He was a Night Coroner all right. He died…10 years ago!”