Investigation Discovery
Investigation Discovery

9 Secrets of Coroners and Medical Examiners

Investigation Discovery
Investigation Discovery

Many true crime aficionados are familiar with the popular portrayal of coroners and medical examiners and their daily interaction with the dead. In the real world, their essential task—confirming a death and figuring out what caused it—is far more involved than what you see on television. Mental_floss spoke with Graham Hetrick, coroner for Dauphin County, Pennsylvania and star of Investigation Discovery’s show The Coroner: I Speak for the Dead, as well as several other medical examiners, to get some insights about their work on the autopsy table and elsewhere.  


The coroner system dates to medieval England, when these officials, then called crowners, worked for the king investigating frauds, thefts, and deaths. These days, a coroner’s main duties are to confirm and certify a death, and to determine whether an investigation is warranted. Prerequisites for coroners vary widely from state to state, with some states requiring that they be certified pathologists while others allow jurisdictions to elect laypeople to the position. Other states, particularly those with large urban centers, have adopted systems employing medical examiners—who are always physicians, never laypeople.

But while coroners in a few jurisdictions may hold little more than a high school diploma, many are highly qualified professionals. Hetrick has a particularly varied background. He is also a medical legal death investigator (an expert in examining the manner and cause of death), thanatologist (a specialist in the scientific study of death), forensics consultant, and funeral director, with advanced training in blood pattern analysis, crime scene management, and forensic sculpting. Hetrick says that while Pennsylvania employs mainly coroners, his system is a hybrid one in which he works closely with a forensic pathologist.



Bruce Goldfarb, executive assistant to Baltimore’s chief medical examiner, explains that while all of the doctors in his department are board-certified forensic pathologists, other cities have had medical examiners who are obstetricians or dentists. But no matter what, Goldfarb says, medical examiners are still “doctors doing doctor work. When we go to the doctor, they do a physical exam, maybe send you for a chest x-ray, order a urinalysis or blood tests, and then they figure out what, if anything, is wrong with you. Our doctors do the same thing, except the patient is dead and they're trying to figure out why.” Unlike regular doctors, however, medical examiners don’t generally have to deal with medical insurance or malpractice suits. 



Coroners and medical examiners collaborate closely with other experts, including forensic photographers, toxicologists, forensic anthropologists, and odontologists (dental experts). Hetrick compares his role as a coroner to that of an orchestra conductor, overseeing different instruments coming together to play “the music of the dead.” He notes that specialists from fields that might seem unrelated to his work—such as entomologists and botanists—can be very helpful in determining time of death based on the life forms that have taken root in a corpse. He describes one case, profiled in episode 4 of The Coroner, in which he called in a botanist to examine a plant growing through the eye socket of a skull in order to pinpoint how long the body had been in that spot.


Investigation Discovery

When most people think of advocacy, they think of efforts to protect the rights of disenfranchised populations among the living. But people who have died under mysterious circumstances or as a result of violence need advocates too. Dr. Marianne Hamel, a New Jersey-based medical examiner and one of the creators of the project Death Under Glass, says of her work: “It helps to look at the job as advocacy for the dead—they are, in many ways, the most disenfranchised among us. They can't testify for themselves or directly tell a jury the story of their suffering. That’s the job of a forensic pathologist.”

Hetrick expands on this outlook, seeing it as his duty to listen to the stories that the dead tell through their physical presence, including damage and decay to their bodies and their position in a crime scene. “I am a storyteller,” he says, “but they are not my stories.” 



In addition to being connected to a wide array of forensic and other sciences, the work of coroners and medical investigators is closely tied to legal investigations into specific deaths. Hetrick stresses that forensics is “science applied to law,” meaning that all physical evidence uncovered during a forensic investigation must hold up in court. “Otherwise,” he says, “it’s just opinion.” 

In order for evidence gathered during a coroner’s or medical examiner’s investigation to hold up in court, the investigators must be thoroughly familiar with crime scene procedure and follow chain of evidence practices. Chain of evidence refers to proper collection and processing of crime scene evidence, including thorough, continuous documentation of who handled the evidence and when. Hetrick says that failure to correctly document handling of evidence affected the outcome of the O. J. Simpson case, making it impossible to convict Simpson in criminal court.


Penn StateFaculty Cottages forensic science program via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The job of a coroner or medical examiner demands endless curiosity and a desire to extract the truth from every case. This process can take years, and many of these professionals describe being haunted by cold cases that were never solved. Naturally, persistence and a strong problem-solving aptitude are desirable attributes. Goldfarb says one of the most challenging types of cases is also one of the most common—somebody “found dead at home, no obvious injuries, no signs of foul play. ... It could be anything; drug intoxication, heart attack/stroke, head injury ... could be suicide, could be accident, could be homicide. Every possibility has to be considered and run down.” Hamel adds that cases are not always what they seem at first, and that she may encounter a natural death that turns out to be a drug overdose, or a suicidal hanging that is actually an autoerotic asphyxiation.


Hetrick says Investigation Discovery’s show captures many important aspects of his profession, particularly the science behind it and the interactions of coroners with the rest of the investigation. Fictional portrayals of coroners and medical investigators, however, are not always so accurate. Hetrick says the typical television pathologist, laboring in a laboratory in isolation, often strikes him as “kind of disturbed.” Goldfarb says that in real life, investigations usually do not wrap up as quickly as they seem to on television. Plus, homicides—which represent about 4 to 5 percent of the cases the Baltimore OCME investigates—are overrepresented. 

Hamel agrees that television is prone to bend the truth in the name of drama. “I don’t carry a gun, I've never interrogated a live suspect, and,” she says, “I don't perform autopsies in the middle of the night under a single, bare, swinging light bulb.”


Paul Sableman via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In addition to their interactions with law enforcement and forensics specialists, a big part of coroners’ and medical examiners’ jobs entails communicating with grieving family members. Hamel emphasizes the need to remain even-tempered and compassionate toward family members who may become understandably overwrought or angry. Goldfarb, who has a background in psychiatry and crisis intervention, concurs. “One of the challenges of the job is constantly keeping in mind that for me this is an ordinary Monday, but the people I speak with on the phone are having one of the worst days of their life,” he says.

Hamel adds that, contrary to the stereotype of the shy, solitary forensic pathologist, people in her field are often called on to testify before a jury or to lecture death investigators or police trainees—so it helps to be outgoing. 


Memento mori mosaic from Pompeii, Naples Archeological Museum via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Hetrick emphasizes that one of the main differences between The Coroner: I Speak for the Dead and other forensic investigation shows is its emphasis on what the dead have to teach the living. “The reason I’m doing the show,” he says, “is because of what the dead show us about how we live and how we should live.” For Hetrick, this means examining both the psychology of those who commit murders and what their actions say about society, as well as the impact that deaths have on living people. He describes his interactions with the family of the victim portrayed in the show’s first episode—a woman named Iris who was killed while trying to build a better life for herself—as emotional, but says it was gratifying to see Iris’s daughter motivated to pursue her dreams in part because of the untimely death of her mother.

On a more personal level, Hetrick says the constant exposure to death prompts him to constantly reevaluate his own life, and to avoid taking anything for granted. “It’s a very thin line [between life and death], believe me,” he says. “A lot of people on that autopsy table thought today was just another day.”

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images
The Secret Procedure for the Queen's Death
Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images
Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images

The queen's private secretary will start an urgent phone tree. Parliament will call an emergency session. Commercial radio stations will watch special blue lights flash, then switch to pre-prepared playlists of somber music. As a new video from Half As Interesting relates, the British media and government have been preparing for decades for the death of Queen Elizabeth II—a procedure codenamed "London Bridge is Down."

There's plenty at stake when a British monarch dies. And as the Guardian explains, royal deaths haven't always gone smoothly. When the Queen Mother passed away in 2002, the blue "obit lights" installed at commercial radio stations didn’t come on because someone failed to depress the button fully. That's why it's worth it to practice: As Half as Interesting notes, experts have already signed contracts agreeing to be interviewed upon the queen's death, and several stations have done run-throughs substituting "Mrs. Robinson" for the queen's name.

You can learn more about "London Bridge is Down" by watching the video below—or read the Guardian piece for even more detail, including the plans for her funeral and burial. ("There may be corgis," they note.)


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