I got the call to head over to Koreatown for a residential call. In my line of work, we are usually called to pick up at four possible locations: a hospital, the Coroner’s office, a morgue, or a residence. (Occasionally, we get pick-ups at prisons, too) Each has their own ups and downs.
At a hospital, you’re usually picking up someone who is still fresh and warm. Rigor mortis has not set in, so the body is pliable and easy to move. The conditions are clean, and there is no odor or anything particularly gruesome to see. You do want to be careful of infectious diseases, which could still be transmutable even after death. The biggest problems are the doctors; they hate to sign death certificates, and will literally hide for days. By law, there has to be a death certificate before we can inter or cremate a body, and they know it. However, pride or ego or a sense of shame makes it difficult to get both the body and the certificate on the same trip, which pisses me off.
A trip to the Coroner’s office is a good way to break in rookies; how they react on their first visit tells me if they’re suited for the job. In the summer, the County Coroner’s building on Mission can be smelled a full block away, due to the 500 or so bodies crammed into coolers designed for a third of that many. Rats gnawing at the bodies was a problem a few years back. However, the staff there knows what they are doing, and you can get in and out quickly. Although it is not permitted by law, the girls at the front desk usually eat their lunches at their workstations, with the stench of death so rich in the air you can taste it on your lips. Murder and accident victims and anyone else who dies under unclear circumstances pass through the Coroner’s office.
Morgue visits are fairly rare; they usually are at university medical schools, and are cadavers that have been used in research. While the body is not fresh, it is seldom in an advanced state of decay. USC’s morgue is one of the creepiest on Earth, deep in the bowels of the gothic structure located apart from the city. While the bodies are easy to load, the issue at the morgues is finding someone to take you down to the bodies. Everyone is always busy, or it is always someone else’s responsibility. The average trip to a university requires going through three or four clueless people whose smiles fade instantly when you tell them you’ve come for a body. Finally, a harassed-looking guy will usually show up, and brusquely walk you down there, like you’re the biggest pain in the ass.
But by far, the worst of all are the residence visits. That is, going to somebody’s house. Put yourself in my shoes. You ring a stranger’s doorbell, knowing full well that you are the last person the resident ever wanted to see in his or her life. You’re a body snatcher, come to take grandma, or mom, or (God forbid) one of the kids away forever, before they’ve come out of shock and have even reached the depths of their grief. You are the Grim Reaper personified.
So, although the Koreatown run was easy, it was difficult. The case was an elderly woman in the bedroom, the grandmother of the family, who were all in attendance, openly sobbing. I come in with my helper (whom I have ordered to remain silent) and examine the situation. The family is more distraught and more numerous than I had hoped; it is much easier when there’s only an elderly spouse, quiet in a chair in the corner. The case is in bed; the biggest problem of all is keeping the family out of the room while you work. While we always are respectful of our cases, there is no elegant way to hoist a 150 pound sack of dead weight onto a gurney, and we don’t want the family watching us do it.
As I suspected, they tried to follow us into the bedroom, but I simply apologized and locked them out. My helper and I worked quickly. We removed the blankets from the bed, made sure there were no visible, bleeding injuries (which would make it a Coroner matter) and rolled her onto our sheet, which we then fold tightly around her, using the rolled-up ends as a grip. I call it a “rollover”. We hoist her onto the gurney, cover her, and wheel her out. The whole process takes about ten minutes.
You don’t want to smile at the family, because how can you? However, you don’t want to seem rude or cold either. So I nodded at them on the way out, and we loaded her into the van. We don’t use body bags, in case you are wondering, only the Coroner uses them. We decided to stop off at Del Taco on our way back.
Joe Cherry is an insider in body delivery, in which drivers retrieve bodies from hospitals, morgues, medical examiners, and private residences to deliver to funeral homes.