My introduction to thanatology was in 1969, with Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s groundbreaking book On Death and Dying. A psychiatry professor at the Pritzker School of Medicine in Chicago, Dr. Kübler-Ross was known for being outspoken and controversial for some of her theories concerning the counseling practices of terminally ill patients and understanding of the grieving process. Back then, a book on the sole subject of death and dying was virtually unheard of, especially in America, where we do everything possible to deny our own mortality or discuss terminal illness openly. In fact, I think it would be safe to say the very term “death” was more or less taboo.
I was no stranger to death, having been raised above a funeral home. I would talk with my father as he was doing embalmings. To me this was normal. I didn’t really understand what he was trying to do for the families he served. It would only be years later that I could understand that he was walking people through a process of recovery when they lost a loved one.
When I discovered On Death and Dying, I had just returned from overseas where I had been serving in the military as a forensic investigator for the southern half of Germany, investigating crimes ranging from theft to homicide. Witnessing death in all its forms and rawness while in the service gave me a more mature appreciation of death itself and for what my father did for those left behind. Dr. Kübler-Ross was able to clearly codify in words how we, as a society, deal with the death of others and our own mortality. After reading her book, which still sits on my shelf in the library, I knew that death and the study of all its aspects would become my life’s purpose.
My past 40 years have been devoted to the phenomenon of death. This includes the biological cause of the death, the manner of death (homicide, suicide, accidental, or natural), and the grieving process for the families left behind. I study the deceased and listen to the story the body tells me. I do all this in a manner that can stand up in court as valid evidence. As a thanatologist and a coroner, I see death from all the different angles — the physical, psychological, social, and legal aspects.
Death is my life. It is what I do.
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.