The Coroner: Life In The Pursuit Of Death

I’ve been asked so many times, “How do you do what you do?  I certainly couldn’t do it.” Well, the more I think about it, the more I realize my life is unique compared with the vast majority of the population.

I am a coroner and medical legal death investigator. I establish and administer a process. I certify the finished product, which is the story of how and why someone has died. I have often compared my work to that of a symphony conductor. The score is the music to the story of the deceased. It has an overture, it cascades through various melodic stages, and then there is the final crescendo … death.

This is not my job; it is my calling. I was raised above a funeral home. Death was and always has been my neighbor. It has been a constant shaper of my personality and perception. One can’t do what I do and not have it affect what they think and how they live each moment of life. Each day, I literally look into the fixed eyes of death. I document the randomness of death as it snatches the lives away from those who thought their time was somewhere in the distant future. It’s funny how man never sees his death as “that day” or “that moment,” but some other time, and in a much more convenient setting. Will we ever be ready?

Here’s the funny thing about death: It never seems to apply to us. It is always happening to “someone else.” Even I am surprised by the ever-clicking hands of time. I forget that I have a strong kinship with the very bodies I study on a daily basis as they whisper, “As I go, so will you.”  It is only during these whispered conversations with the dead that I must reconsider facing my own mortality.

In my work I don’t have the luxury that other people have to ignore my tenuous existence on this spinning globe. Not always, but often, I hear death saying, “I am here.There is a story to be told.” That daily whisper defines my life.

Ignoring our mortality, especially in the West, has become an art form. We are in endless pursuit of the fountain of youth. We actively seek any form of distraction from reality. Reverence for our elders has been long ago lost in the din of the latest fad or style. An understanding of our mortality has become disjointed and lost definition. We ignore our own mortality like an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand.

Even after all my years of studying death, I have few answers, but just asking the questions has changed how I look at life. Each day seems like a singular gift. Each glimpse of beauty grows more precious than the last. Love seems more important than hate. Good seems preferable to evil. The material world and accumulation seem less important than being consciousness of simply “being.”

So, when someone asks how I can live with being surrounded by death, I just smile and say, “Oh, you get used to it.” It would be too difficult to explain how those who die make my life so much more alive by what they tell me about themselves in that last great mystery … death.

To learn more about the terms and practices of a medical legal investigator, watch The Coroner: I Speak for the Dead Mondays at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery. Go to Graham Hetrick’s official website to learn other forensic terms. 

Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery

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