You might not think a weekend with a bunch of coroners, death investigators and medical examiners would be a lively one (pun intended), but you’d be wrong.
This past weekend, I addressed a gathering of such professionals. They didn’t invite me to talk about CSI stuff like cause of death, Y incisions or corpse-eating bugs. Rather, because my new book FALL explores a 30-year-old abduction, rape and murder that destroyed two childhood friends of mine and swept my small hometown up in its wake, they wanted to hear about the ripple effects of a single crime in a community and what lessons can be gleaned beyond the morgue slab.
There’s not much obvious parallel between coroners and newspaperman authors, but if you aren’t constrained by the obvious, you can see we are both explainers of death. Yes, we approach our “storytelling” in different ways, but the result is the same: We interpret dying for the living, and where we can, we try to find meaning. Most deaths defy meaning, but it’s a quirky habit of the not-yet-dead to try to rationalize it.
My only job was to address the coroners’ Saturday lunch, but I attended all the other convention sessions I could. I heard Special Agent Ray Lundin of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation dissect the investigation of the infamous BTK serial killings in Wichita. I heard professional death investigators and forensic pathologists explain autopsy techniques that led to solving a young girl’s cold-case serial murder, and reveal for the first time (in marvelously grotesque detail) the world’s only known case of autoerotic death by gunshot, as well as enough unusual forensic cases to fill a whole season of CSI. Some of these people had used the growth rate of pubic hair as a death indicator, or concluded that Pooky, your precious pet Pekingese, will indeed eat your head if you die and she doesn’t have any other food in the house. Trust me on this.
And pictures. Everybody had resplendently colorful PowerPoint presentations filled with crime-scene and morgue photos, swathed in all the pale, violent and congealing colors of death. I was the only amateur in the room, and while I long ago steeled myself against such visual proof of man’s inhumanity to man (and woman), I still avoided the spaghetti and marinara for dinner.
But all was not morbid … well, at least not as morbid as you might imagine.
During a morning bathroom break, I found myself at the middle urinal with coroners on either side of me, and others waiting for their chance. The guy on my left mentioned how he’d recently been called out on a double homicide that turned out to be simply two drunks who froze to death together. The guy on the right one-upped him with a tale of a reported suicide that turned out to be merely a brain aneurysm. Suddenly, everyone in the loo was telling personal anecdotes of death gone bad. So if you have a taste for macabre Twilight Zone moments, just hang out with a gang of peeing coroners.
I delivered my luncheon speech without the benefit of colorful photos. To be honest, I now wish I’d shown some crime-scene photos, if only just to satisfy my audience’s professional jones for visuals. But, alas, I long ago set the photos of my two dead friends aside, hid them in a file I wouldn’t thumb through regularly. I never offered them to the publisher of my book simply because I feared they would be used gratuitously to snag the typical true-crime reader into buying it. They pop into my brain less and less now. My account of their deaths was delivered in resplendently colorful words, not pictures. But even so, those photos linger undeletable in the photo archive of my mind.
We Americans have succeeded in concealing death from view, and in the process, we have made talking about it bluntly difficult, even ghastly. We’re OK with TV shows like CSI or Cold Case that shine it up with makeup and computerized special effects for mass consumption, but we still prefer to treat it as a distasteful development rather than a natural process. We’ve come a long way since the days when Grandpa’s body would be kept in the back bedroom or parlor until we could dig his grave out back. Imagine living every day with Grandpa’s remains until after the spring thaw, when the frozen earth was dig gable again.. Today, we hand over Grandpa to the nursing home, hospital or, ultimately, the mortuary to handle out of our view. We’ll pay dearly to make him look, one last time, just like he did in life. Why pretend, even subconsciously, that he’s not really dead and that decay hasn’t already begun?
Ah, but I suppose none of us wants to be seen in a crime-scene or morgue photo. That generally means our end was unseemly, unexpected or undreamed. And, face it, if you think your driver’s license photo is bad, you’re gonna hate how you look in the morgue. I don’t know how I’ll die, but I hope that nobody must photograph it for the public record. That would suggest it didn’t happen the way I’d always hoped or imagined.