The author’s lifelong fascination with death leads her to tour the L.A. coroner’s office soon after she nearly dies herself. And she discovers it’s not exactly as pristine as the ones on TV.
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“Can you still take me to the morgue?” I asked John Zambos, a homicide detective from one of Los Angeles’s most crime-ridden areas. A few years earlier I befriended Zambos, who has since retired from duty, while I was working as an associate producer on a TV documentary for September Films for a show called Vice. This particular segment focused on the brave souls who clean up the blood and guts from homicides and suicides.
Zambos, who stands tall at six-foot-three, had promised to take me to the morgue six months earlier, but then I almost died myself while navigating a crosswalk at Melrose Avenue. A Ford Explorer struck me at 30 miles an hour, dragging me 49 feet before finally stopping. I broke six ribs, my L1 vertebra, my tailbone, and fractured my left femur bone—for that, I was outfitted with a 14-inch-long titanium rod.
Three and a half months into my recovery, the detective called me. I was still limping badly and spending most of my time between physiotherapy and doctor appointments. It turned out that he was actually going to check on a body for a case later that day.
“Really? Can I come?”
“Sure, I mean it’s Wednesday after all.”
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you ever watch the Mickey Mouse Club? It’s ‘Anything Can Happen Wednesday.’ I’ll pick you up. It will be good for you to get out of the house.”
Yes, I thought. And what better a place to visit than a morgue.
No matter who you are or what you do, there’s a chance you’ll wind up being transported to the coroner’s office if you die unexpectedly. In L.A., the Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner is mandated by law to determine the circumstances, manner, and cause of all violent, sudden, or unusual deaths occurring within the county, including all homicides, suicides, accidental deaths, and natural deaths where the decedent—or, deceased person—has not seen a physician within 20 days prior to death.
According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, there were a total of 18,187 deaths reported in 2013 (the most recent report available) to the coroner’s office. Of those, 8,495 were examined and 3,775 were actually completed autopsies.
I was 13 when I first became fascinated with death: My Sunday-school friend had been fatally hit by an 18-wheeler. In college, I studied the economics of the funeral business (it’s a $20.7 billion-per-year industry), and published my first story as a journalist—when I was 18—about the rising cremation rates in Montreal, which involved spending the day with a man who burned bodies for a living, underground, in a small room with a retort that climbed to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit.
I continued stoking my interest when I moved to Los Angeles, by writing for magazines on the subject, and when HBO’s Six Feet Under debuted, I made sure to get a press pass to the premiere.
So it was inevitable that I’d end up in the coroner’s office—I just couldn’t have anticipated that it would coincide with a moment in my life when I nearly died myself.
I stood in a parking lot, waiting for Detective Zambos to lead the way, when the stench hit me. I thought it was part decomposing flesh, part formaldehyde, but he insisted that it was all natural: Putrefying innards emit methane that smell like rotting fish.
We entered through the back via the garage, which led to the wood-paneled administrative office, where we found two secretaries basking under the florescent lights, kept company by black Oscar fish swimming in a tank. There was a “No Eating” sign hanging on the wall—as if. The office was door-less. As soon as Zambos and I entered the next room—bam! There were four bodies laying on gurneys, dead and naked. Genitals engorged. Bellies bulging. Skin yellow like chicken fat and purple-y blue.
In retrospect, I expected the morgue to be pristine and sterile, all stainless steel and baby-blue tiles, like something out of an episode of CSI. Maybe there would be one corpse sitting there. But instead it was dismal and dingy, with dead bodies all around. The place made my stomach churn and gave me the creeps. It was a miracle that the accident had not rendered me a lifeless vegetable. Maybe now I wanted to literally look at death in the face and say, “Fuck you. Not yet. Not now.”
“Welcome to the Meat House,” said a technician named Tony Brown, smiling as he rolled a corpse past us to an adjoining room.
“Follow me this way, kiddo,” Zambos said. “We have to get suited up with booties and a mask. Tuberculosis is prevalent in this city, and actually many of the coroners here have already contracted it because it’s air borne.”
“Once you are all geared up,” said Brown, “I’m gonna be your guide on this three-hour tour.”
“Excuse me Tony,” I said lifting my right index finger in the air and giving it a twirl. “I noticed a sign back there that says, ‘No Eating.’ Does anyone actually eat around the bodies?”
“Yes. We’re not supposed to, but people chow down here all the time. Don’t tell anyone, but I ate a cheeseburger here yesterday. And I’ll tell you something—I know this sounds funny, but a body that’s died in a fire doesn’t smell much different than barbecue chicken.”
The first room I was led to was basically a big fridge. Shelf upon shelf of crisp corpses. Bodies tagged, wrapped, and stacked.
“This here are the crypts where we keep the deceased until doctors sign them out. Transients are also kept here, your John and Jane Does. Sometimes they’re in here for years,” Brown explained.
In 2013, there were 546 unclaimed or unidentified bodies.
During a rat infestation in 2002, Brown, a marathon runner originally from Baltimore, was the guy who had to inspect and double wrap each and every one of the 400 bodies in the crypts.
“It was a mess,” said Brown, a Baltimore native who ran marathons when he wasn’t working among the dead. “Rats had gnawed at the corpses. Some even defecated in there, while others gave birth inside the body cavities.”
To get to each room, we maneuvered past dead bodies on gurneys. The walls of the hallway were decorated with tattered posters: diagrams of the eyes, teeth, and digestive system. “Remember! Good Housekeeping is Everyone’s Responsibility,” read one placard.
Tattoos on dead skin look discolored and absurd, like they’ve been ironed on and can be peeled off. Hair looks lifeless like a wig that’s been stapled on. Without the breath we are reduced to a bag of skin.
The final room we entered was where the autopsies were performed. During an autopsy, a forensic pathologist examines the body, looking for disease or injury.
The bodies were on operating tables in different states of dismemberment. One was decapitated. Another had her chest cavity ripped open, skin stiff like a book. Each organ was inspected, weighed, and placed into bordello-red plastic bags that were placed beside the corpse’s head.
“There is an external look at the body but an autopsy includes total examination,” explained Brown. “That’s why each organ is weighed, to give us an idea of what’s wrong with it.”
As Tony Brown spoke, I noticed a young dead girl, no more than 18, in the far corner of the room. Four holes riddled her chest.
“From those burn marks, you can tell she was shot up close,” said Detective Zambos when he noticed me looking at her.
“Are most of the bodies here homicides?” I asked.
“Yeah, but we get a lot of suicides too.”
“Really? It’s common?”
“Oh, yeah. All kinds. One guy built a cannon for himself. Another guy placed a steel plate behind him so that when he shot himself, he wouldn’t hurt anyone else. There’s also been a dozen or so people who have worked here who have also killed themselves. One employee upstairs in administration swallowed cyanide. They didn’t have to go far to pick him up.”
In 2013, there were 624 homicides and 793 suicides, most of which involved firearms and hangings.
“We get a lot of ‘traffics,’ too,” Brown added. There were 784 reported traffic accidents in 2013 and of those 213 involved pedestrians.
“Thirteen million people over 500 square miles, there’s no wonder there are so many car accidents. The most mutilated bodies are traffics. Metal and tissue just don’t mix.”
And that’s how I found out that had I died, they would have transported my body to this sad place. That could have been me lying naked on the table. Tony doing the Virchow on my corpse.
As I stripped off my hazmat suit, I thanked Tony Brown.
“No, thank you,” he told me. “I always enjoy it when living people come to visit the facility.”
Excerpted from a forthcoming ebook titled The Girl Who Cried Coyote.
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