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Marketing the Morgue : Business: Interest and sales in coroner's office souvenirs is booming. But critics say the products demean the city's image.

February 22, 1994|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one thought the idea would take off.

In fact, when Marilyn Lewis proposed that the county coroner's office sell souvenirs to raise money for the department she had a ready defense: "I'm a secretary, not some marketing whiz. What do I know?"

But after People, Newsweek, Life, CNN and "Good Morning America" ran stories, take off it did. Although no one is calling it the marketing coup of the century, the sale of personalized toe tags and beach towels emblazoned with the outline of a body is big and about to get bigger.

The Board of Supervisors recently approved a deal to market the products in Canada and now at least two Japanese companies have expressed interest. In coming days, coroner's officials will choose between one of two firms bidding for domestic rights.

County officials believe that if they play their cards right the deals will rake in as much as $1 million a year, with the money to be used for the coroner's youth diversion programs, in which troubled teen-agers tour the morgue as an incentive to change their ways.

"Whatever we do with it, however big it gets, it does show we can make money and do something worthwhile without raising taxes," said Lewis, a 30-year county worker who joined the coroner's staff three years ago.

Tagged the resident marketing guru, she fairly twinkles when discussing what has become a major part of her duties. One of her favorite stories is about the tourists from Alabama who wanted to visit the "gift shop" and finding that it consisted of a closet outside the executive offices, still insisted on snapping pictures of each other in front of the shelves.

The rising popularity of the paraphernalia has boosted the image and morale of the coroner's staff, she said.

"People had lived with that negative attitude the department had, of dealing with death and dying," Lewis said. "Now we're known for something else as well and a lot of people say it humanizes us."

But the booming business in the macabre inevitably raises questions of what, if anything, the whole thing says about Los Angeles. Are civic leaders pushing an image of the city as a violent mecca? There is no doubt that the Los Angeles County coroner holds a mystique for many because of its investigation of celebrity deaths, such as Natalie Wood's and John Belushi's. The popular television show "Quincy" was patterned on department operations and former coroner Thomas T. Noguchi became famous as the "coroner to the stars" before he was forced out in 1982.

But many see the morgue humor as inappropriate.

"Los Angeles is already known as a capital of crime, for its high death rate, for gang murders; we ought not to (perpetuate) that by having skeletons and bodies on a beach towel," Supervisor Ed Edelman said. "We open ourselves up to losing more than we gain and continue the idea that somehow L.A. is a dangerous place to live."

Edelman said the souvenirs are probably not such innocent fun for the families and friends of loved ones whose violent or accidental deaths were investigated by the coroner.

Outside of Los Angeles, the concept has elicited snide rebukes. A similar merchandising plan was considered in Houston, but was rejected by the coroner there as "positively unprofessional and grossly insensitive to the victims' next of kin."

"This is not Los Angeles County, a place where the macabre is the stuff movies are made of," sniffed an editorialist for the Houston Chronicle. "This is Harris County, where common sense, but more importantly, respect for human life still applies."

But for Lewis, none of the criticisms wash. She sees herself as everywoman, a sober, middle-class mother, albeit with a weird sense of humor, who ought to know what is and isn't offensive. Death, and the often-attendant coroner, are a part of life that one cannot wave away, she said.

"I think those people sound awfully stuffy; they're not willing to try something different or new ideas," she said while sitting in her neat office on the grounds of County-USC Medical Center and fielding calls from people asking how to find the gift shop.

"Death is awfully scary, but maybe something like this helps us tolerate things a little easier," she said.

Gary Sherwin, director of media relations for the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, said there is phenomenal interest domestically and internationally in the darker aspects of Los Angeles culture, as exhibited in the popularity of the celebrity graveside tours.

"The whole project with the coroner falls into that," Sherwin said. "So I don't see it as distracting visitors from coming. It's another one of those kooky things in L.A. that makes it so great."

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