Monday, April 12, 2010

Research: The Coroner's Office

I’d interviewed a nurse in the office of Public Health and had been given research material for a high school class assignment on venereal diseases. Then, while leaving the building, I saw the Seattle-King County Coroner’s Office. What did they do, I wondered? I didn’t have time that day, but the following week, I again took a bus into downtown Seattle for further research–this time not for credit, but for personal knowledge. Well, okay, morbid curiosity.

I stepped into the Coroner’s Office and there the man stood, surprised to see a book- toting school girl. I gave him the same rehearsed speech I had given before about a school assignment, but substituted “coroner’s office” for “venereal diseases.” He looked pretty surprised, but there I was and he had to do something with me. With enthusiasm, he launched into describing all they did. I was impressed and found it most interesting.

Up to that point, I had never seen a dead body–this was 1953 and I was only 17. He pulled open a refrigerated drawer, just like in the movies, and showed me a fellow they’d found on Skid Road. A sheet covered most of his body, but his feet stuck out at one end. The poor man had a "John Doe" toe tag since they had no real identification for him.

The Coroner explained to me the procedure for preserving the body, their attempt to locate and notify next of kin, the County’s responsibility for unclaimed bodies, etc. He went into some detail about the procedure for estimating the man’s age. The Coroner folded back the sheet, exposing the man’s head and shoulders, and explained that the fellow was much younger than he looked due to his rough way of life.

The Coroner asked me if I wanted to touch the body–I didn’t, but then gingerly touched his shoulder with one finger. He felt like wax. The Coroner explained that was due to the embalming preservatives. It was all pretty weird, but very interesting. I was thankful for the Coroner’s forthrightness and honesty.

That night at dinner, just as my dad was taking a bite of food, I announced calmly that I had gone to the County Morgue that afternoon. My mother said, “Oh, Mary, you did not,” really thinking that I was kidding.

My dad looked at me and said, “I’ll bet she did.” He was curious about all the procedures and asked many questions. My mother couldn’t believe it–she wouldn’t have done that in a million years.

When I told them about the fellow in the drawer, I mentioned they had found the body on Skid Road. Naturally, my next questions was, “So...where’s Skid Road?”

“Oh, no. You’re not going there.” He looked at my determined face. “We’ll go together some day.”


“Next Saturday.”

Mother’s weak, “Clint, you really wouldn’t take her there,” went unnoticed. I knew he’d keep his word. I could hardly wait.

That’s another story–for next week.


Heidiwriter said...

What a fascinating research project for a young girl to undertake. I wonder if it would be as easy today to get such an "up-close and personal" tour of the morgue?!


Mary E. Trimble said...

Thanks for your comment, Heidi. I'll bet today I wouldn't have been accepted as graciously as I was that day. I probably wouldn't have gotten past the front desk!

Joyce Lohse said...

Ah, the heart and soul of a true journalist. Way to go, Mary!