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.