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Compassion From the Coroner's Office

February 11, 1988|PHILLIP D. CAMPBELL

On Jan. 19, View told the story of a Colorado woman whose husband was killed in Los Angeles during a street robbery. Before she learned of the death, his body was cremated by the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, which had waited 40 days for someone to claim it.

I cannot speak for the county, the Coroner's Office or their leaders. I cannot explain the wisdom of policy making or the deployment of personnel. I can only speak for myself and I would like to think that I speak for my co-workers and some of the people of this community whom we attempt to serve.

I may be violating department policy by writing, but I will take my lumps--on behalf of anyone who feels represented by my views--to be heard.

I have been an investigator for the Los Angeles County Coroner for more than six years and have served as a training officer for new investigators. I have been a police officer in a major California city. I am a California licensed embalmer. I have arranged and directed many funerals. I have counseled the bereaved, the deprived, the suicidal, the desperate and the criminal. I have a college education. I have suffered the loss of relatives and friends, some of whom have passed through the Los Angeles Coroner's Office.

The men and women who work at the Coroner's Office--I mean those who process the work--are human like the rest of the world. We suffer deaths among our families and friends as well. We understand the physical, spiritual, financial and emotional strains put upon a family when the coroner must intercede.

Our office processes more death investigations in one day than most coroner offices see in a week. Most investigators in this state handle one to three cases per week. Our investigators handled two to five per day. There are between 100 and 300 bodies in our facility at any given time. In addition to myriad other tasks, our supervisors review every investigation at least three times. That's about 100 reviews per day per supervisor. Our physicians examine, or are consulted about, more than 17,000 deaths annually. Our aides and attendants answer hundreds of phone calls daily and move or handle bodies dozens and dozens of times per day. The people responsible for handling bodies and locating families work around the clock trying to keep up.

We collect bodies weighing from ounces to many hundreds of pounds. And from places ranging from mountain ravines to third-floor bathrooms too small for two people to get into at the same time--and one of the two is dead. We handle remains of people dead from only a few hours to many months and in conditions and states of decomposition that would stagger the imaginations of most people. I'm not writing an excuse for poor service, I'm offering a glance at our complex operation.

We receive calls daily from people demanding that their case get priority treatment. Each caller thinks he or she is more important than the last caller, or that he or she is the only one with a funeral to plan and with "friends and relatives coming from all over."

They don't seem to understand that every family we serve has had a death in the family and has plans to make. They all want to tend to their tasks and get back to the business of living. When those callers get their way, other families who patiently wait their turn get pushed back a few more hours or days.

We receive calls daily from people searching for a missing "loved one." Some are looking for a friend missing only a few hours while others are looking for a husband or wife missing for "a couple of years." That's not a misprint; "years," they say. And now they want us to drop everything else to help them look.

Trying to identify a person found dead without a single piece of paper on their person is a major task in itself considering that there are millions of people in this county, many of whom are transitory, undocumented and alone.

But even if they are identified, trying to locate a family member is an entirely separate problem. Associating a dead body with a relative or friend across the street can be virtually impossible, let alone one in another state. Some out-of-state relatives have complained that we took too many hours to notify them of a death--in one case, four hours. I think that finding a relative in another state four hours after examining an unidentified male is just short of a miracle.

Seldom do people carry next-of-kin information on their persons, especially when they don't even carry personal identification. It can take weeks to learn where a local resident lives and whether or not they live alone, and then gain access to the home to search for relatives. Even California Department of Motor Vehicle files often list former addresses at which the decedent is unknown.

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