I am asked so many times; “How do you do what you do? I certainly couldn’t do it.” Well, the more I think about it the more realize my life is unique from the vast majority of the population.
Ignoring our mortality, especially in the West, has become an art form. We participate in an endless pursuit for the fountain of youth. We actively seek any form of distraction from reality. Reverence for our elders has been long ago lost in the din of the latest fad or style. Time and an understanding of mortality has become disjointed and lost definition. We ignore our own mortality like an ostrich with his head stuck in the sands of time. This willful ignorance of the frailty of our own existence makes my life of speaking for the dead an oddity or aberration, as per our commonly agreed upon collective consciousness.
Here’s the funny thing about death—it never seems to apply to us. It is always happening to “someone else”. I am even surprised by the ever-clicking hands of mortality. I forget that I have a strong kinship with the very bodies I study on a daily basis as they whisper, “As I go, so will you.” It is only during these whispered conversations with the dead that I must reconsider facing my own mortality.
I am a coroner and medical legal death investigator. I establish and administer a process. I certify the finished product—which is the story of how and why someone has died. I have often compared my work to that of a symphony conductor. The score is the music to the story of the deceased. It has an overture, it cascades through various melodic stages, and then there is the final crescendo—death.
As the conductor of a death investigation, I must put together a team. I don’t play each instrument but I know the nature and quality of each player needed. I know a good forensic pathologist and see how we must work together to read the scene like sheet music. It is my job not to look at a singular player, but rather to bring the parts of the whole together to play the final score. Each day I approach the podium of death, tap my baton and start the music to tell the story of those who can no longer express themselves through word or thought.
This is not my job; it is my calling. I was raised above a funeral home. Death was and always has been my neighbor. It has been a constant shaper of my personality and perception. I have certified over 13,000 deaths, not just from my own work or observations, but also with the help and talent of many great scientist and investigators. The orchestra is greater than whole of its parts. Death investigation is a team effort. It is my job to see the whole and tell the story to its completion.
One can’t do what I do and not have it affect what they think and how they live each moment of life. Each day, I literally look into the fixed eyes of death. I document the randomness of death as it snatches the lives away from those who thought their time was somewhere in the distant future. It’s funny how man never sees his death as “that day” or “that moment” but some other time, and in a much more convenient setting. Will we ever be ready?
In my work I don’t have the luxury other people have to ignore my tenuous existence on this spinning globe. Not always, but often, I hear death saying, “I am here. There is a story to be told.” That daily whisper defines my life. What am I, just random chemicals, or is Graham both material and spirit? As a scientist I understand that matter is never destroyed only transformed, so is death merely a transformation? Do our actions in this life really matter after death? Is there a known existence after this short blip of consciousness? What is consciousness and is it a continuum far past this earthly existence?
In all my years of studying death, I have few answers but just asking the questions has changed how I look at life. Each day seems like a singular gift. Each glimpse of beauty grows more precious than the last. Love seems more important than hate. Good seems preferable to bad. The material world and accumulation seem less important than being consciousness of simply “being”.
So when someone asks how I can constantly be surrounded by death, I just smile and say, “Oh, you get use to it.” It would be too difficult to explain how those who die make my life so much more alive by what they tell me about themselves and that last great mystery— DEATH.
My introduction to thanatology was in 1969, with Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ groundbreaking book, “On Death and Dying.” A psychiatry professor at the Pritzker School of Medicine in Chicago, Dr. Kübler-Ross was known for being outspoken and controversial for some of her theories concerning the counseling practices of terminally ill patients and understanding of the grieving process. Back then, a book on the sole subject of death and dying was virtually unheard of, especially in America, where we do everything possible to deny our own mortality or discuss terminal illness openly. In fact, I think it would be safe to say the very term “death” was more or less taboo.
I was no stranger to death, having been raised above a funeral home. I would talk with my father as he was doing embalmings. To me this was normal. I didn’t really understand what he was trying to do for the families he served. It would only be years later that I could understand that he was walking people through a process of recovery when they lost a loved one.
When I discovered “On Death and Dying,” I had just returned from overseas where I had been serving in the military as a forensic investigator for the southern half of Germany, investigating crimes ranging from theft to homicide. Witnessing death in all its forms and rawness while in the service gave me a more mature appreciation of death itself and for what my father did for those left behind. Dr. Kübler-Ross was able to clearly codify in words how we, as a society, deal with the death of others and our own mortality. After reading her book, which still sits on my shelf in the library, I knew that death and the study of all its aspects would become my life’s purpose.
My last forty years have been devoted to the phenomenon of death. This includes the biological cause of the death, the manner of death (homicide, suicide, accidental or natural), and the grieving process for the families left behind. I study the deceased and listen to the story the body tells me. I do all this in a manner that can stand up in court as valid evidence. As a thantologist and coroner, I see death from all the different angles — the physical, psychological, social and legal aspects.
Death is my life. It is what I do.
It is now public that I am doing a series for Discovery ID. I have been doing many interview and one of the most frequently asked question is’ Why are you doing this show?” It reminds me of an old Chinese say; “The how is easy but the why is difficult.”
For twenty-five years I have been the coroner for Dauphin County. Over the years I have tried to have a transparent office. I have held many press conferences. I hold them not to promote myself but to inform the community of what the deaths I investigate tell us about how we live and how we should live.
Each death I investigate tells me something about the nature of death. Every day I face the details of how took someone met the dark angel. All the deaths I investigate are sudden, maybe from an unknown cause, an accident, a homicide or even a self-inflicted suicidal action. Most long term illnesses never reach my forensic center because their history of physical demise well documented.
Over the years I started to realize that the I was becoming a spokesman for the dead. Through the pathologies, patterns and the scene investigations they spoke to me of their most intimate details. They reveal their mistakes, their victories and what caught them unaware. I intern have attempted to tell the community the importance of their stories and what we can learn from them. I most cases I have found that when tragedy happens we lose ourselves in the superficial causes and miss the greater philosophical questions. We debate back and forth about gun control but seldom ask the question; “Why does life seem so cheap that one can kill another for so little reason?” We speak of a heroine epidemic but seldom discuss; “Why are the richest, the freest people in the world anesthetizing themselves? These and other greater questions about the meaning of life are not often discussed and that is the real story of death.
Asking these questions goes well beyond the physical cause of death to the very nature of man. It is my hope that this series, “THE CORONER: I SPEAK FOR THE DEAD” will allow a broader and more significant discussion well beyond my own community. Discovery ID has a perfect format to do just this. I will blog about each episode and discuss those greater stories the victims want to tell me and you.
It gives meaning to their loss and the loss of the victim’s families to ask these greater questions and Discovery ID has given me this opportunity. Come with me and listen to what the dead have to say.