Coroner cases and small towns

We’ve all seen it on television — the urban death scene where the coroner pulls up with his staff in the coroner van ready to remove the body from the scene to the morgue.  Of course, metropolitan areas have professionally paid coroners, deputy coroners, and staff available to make these removals.  I read this recent article about the plans to institute a paid coroner in Cass County, North Dakota.  . . home of the growing city of Fargo and it made me reminisce on my time as a funeral home owner who acted as a volunteer in the “coroner livery” capacity.

Have you ever wondered how “coroner cases” get taken care of in small, rural communities.  There is no paid coroner, nor is their staff, or even a van provided at taxpayer expense to handle these cases.  I can speak for my small county of about 40,000 people where we operated a funeral home in the county seat.  For many years the private ambulance service was called to the scene and removed the body to the hospital morgue – at no cost to the county.

That all changed, however, when the small, local ambulance service was purchased by a larger concern.  No longer would they transport deceased human bodies if they had not tried to resuscitate that body while en route to life saving places.  First of all, unless their was life-saving measures there was no one for the ambulance company to bill for their services and secondly, they made a very strong point in that the ambulance company did not want to be transporting a “dead body” if they had a call for life-saving purposes.

So, it became a dilemma whereby the police chief, the sheriff, and the coroner called the funeral homes together to decide how this could be handled.  The funeral homes were told that there was no county money available for this cause, but it somehow had to get done.  None of us funeral home owners really wanted to do it because it meant more 24-hour call with no reward.  I remember the police chief saying, “We have to have somebody do it — we have to clear an accident scene on a road so the public can use the road.”

I sunk in my seat but started to think of how good this community had been to us.  Finally, I spoke up and said, “We will do it.  When you need help call our funeral home.  We will do the work.”  I know our community had volunteer firemen and volunteer hospice workers, and volunteers everywhere. . . . I figured that we can do this for our community.

That was probably 20 years ago. . . and we still do this service for our community. . . and it makes us feel good.  I’ve been to bad accident scenes,  because of it – many times where our funeral home did not get the death call.  I’ve been with Minnesota State Highway troopers and coroners back at the morgue trying to figure who the victim(s) was/were or who the next of kin would be.  I’ve been called away from my family in 20 degree below zero weather on Christmas eve to remove a remains from an automobile filled with wrapped Christmas presents that never reached their destination.

Virtually all of those coroner cases were automobile accidents, suicides, or deaths in a public place.  And even as a funeral director, it gave me this sense of the finality of death and how quickly it could come to any of us.

Leaving the morgue and driving home after these experiences was always a solemn drive.  I would always think of my wife and two boys who loved me unconditionally and were safe at home and think of the State Trooper or police chief who was at the same time on his way to announce to some unknowing family that they had just lost a loved one.  I certainly did not envy their job at that time.

At the end of the day, after 35 years as a small town funeral director, it is these experiences that have made me feel good about what I did in that community.  It was those days that I really felt like I was doing God’s work on earth.  And, doing it for no pay!!!  The fact of the matter is that I probably should have paid for the privilege of caring for those fellow human beings because of what it did for my own outlook on life.

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