Three Drunk Coroners

I met three, well-dressed men at a bar one night. They were older, probably mid-fifties. I was still smoking at the time. It was a place where they seat people at long, cafeteria-like tables which means, often times, you’ll end up next to strangers who are part of another party.

“Light another one, little lady, we need the business!”

The man was greeted with a boom of laughter from his friends.

Realizing they were talking to me and slightly intrigued by what they said, I looked over at them.

“Do you work for the tobacco company?”

I asked politely, blowing my smoke upward into the air above their heads. They laughed and then their faces, in contrast, turned serious. The thin man across from me answered

“No. We’re coroners.”

More intrigued, I put out my cigarette. I couldn’t think of anything more exciting than being seated next to three, drunk coroners. I still can’t come up with anything more exciting. The questions began to charge the inside of my skull.

What courses were you told to take in college? Is it ever just too hard? Describe a bad day, because Tom over here is always bitching about ‘bad days’, and I’m sure a bad day for an art director doesn’t even compare, so what’s a bad day for you fellas? What is the grossest thing you’ve ever seen? Is there downtime? Do you have kids? Are you religious? Where does your job stand on the totem pole of a funeral process? Have you ever cleaned up someone you know? Why, in your opinion, are there more men in your profession than there are woman?

I asked them everything.

“Michele, leave them alone, you’re being rude!”

A member of my party put their hand on my shoulder in order to hush me. Rude? How am I being rude? I’m merely asking a group of coroners about the most taboo subject there is. How is that rude? If there’s anyone who’s willing to answer me about this sort of stuff, if there are any living folks willing to give me honest answers, it’s a group of drunk coroners. And I couldn’t stop now. I needed to know.

The man looked at my friend,

“It’s perfectly ok. She’s not being rude. We’re wondering if she needs to seek mental health or wants a job, but she’s not being rude.”

There was some more laughter. The same hands which earlier that week were entangled in human remains, raised a beer for a toast.

“To dead people and cigarettes.”

He smiled.

I realized something that evening about myself and those I enjoy being seated with. If you were to ask me what I thought the hardest feat for a surgeon, or the perils which lay behind a door at a meat packing plant, or even the sites, sounds, and fears one might experience as a logger or a miner, I could probably wager an accurate guess or, at the very least, make someone laugh with my ignorance. And, if I were to ask any of these same questions to my closest friends, they too would most likely come close or entertain with idea. Wonderment is a powerful thing and keeps the mind from becomming stagnant. And I like that most about people, their ability to empathize. But the day in the life of a coroner, I can’t even imagine about really, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a hundred questions to ask.

Last night, I thought about these men again. I was sitting on my couch thinking about death and funerals, how the body is laid, the plants are put, the tissues placed, the snap shots poked, and as my mind was scanning the memories of every funeral I’d ever been to, I realized that every body is placed with the head facing the left side of a mourner’s body. I haven’t ever been to a funeral, nor have I seen a movie, where the head faces the right arm. After my night with three drunk coroners and their gracious answers, I know that thought lies beneath this. I’m sure of it. And I want to know why.

35 Comments

  1. Took me a second to figure out what you meant with your last question… good question, though! You never see it the other way around. Perhaps it has something to with lineups? People naturally do stuff from left to right, no? That’s just a wild-ass guess.

    Do you watch Six Feet Under? I’ve had lots of questions answered by those folks (especially in the first season, when they made sure you knew what was involved in embalming!)

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  2. I did watch the first season. We don’t have cable, so we wait not so patiently for the rest.

    I think, that show, is my favorite of the HBO shows. :]

    I can’t wait to see more

    Good point about the line ups. I wonder if it’s flipped in England then?

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  3. I’ve been trying to find the answer to your question for about 15 minutes and I can’t find jackshit. Now I want to know.

    My assumption is what girl27 says, but who knows.

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  4. In england, they wear their wedding rings on their other ring finger, so I could see them doing this the opposite way, too?

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  5. The escalators are flipped as well. But still, I think there’s even more meaning…

    then again, maybe I just read too much shit into shit.

    hehe

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  6. Ok… Thanks to Funeral Director Jim Jeffrey at Schreiter Sandrock Funeral Home for this one: Caskets are made with the hinges on the body’s left side… Therefore, when you open it, you’d have to have the head to the left, in order for the mourners not to have their view blocked.

    If the deceased has had any disease causing facial deformity on the right side, you can Special Order a casket with hinges on the other side. This way, the body would be turned around, with the head on the right.

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  7. WOOP!!!

    You rule!

    Did you call Jim? Or find that one the INTERNET?

    Thanks, babe.

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  8. But….

    wait….

    that still doesn’t make sense. You can still flip the person around, right?

    Yeah.

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  9. I don’t know if there is any significance to the situation of the body in a casket. But there may be a practical reason … since caskets are all manufactured and have hinges, it might just be a standard to put them on the same side.

    Silly response and it begs the question about significance.

    On a related note, you might find Mary Roach’s book “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” kind of interesting. I’m about 2/3 of the way through it.

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  10. Mihow, you’ve piqued his interest. He’s just re-returned my call, saying he’s going to look into the historical significance, as well. But he doesn’t know of anything offhand.

    He also wishes you the best of luck with your upcoming book on the funeral industry.

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  11. but wait…. I’m still not sure that’s correct. Unless there’s a pillow built in somehow, then the hinges won’t matter as you can just flip the body over. know what I mean?

    I will totally pick up that book, mr jesus.

    girl27, you make me laugh.

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  12. I think most caskets have a “head” end and a “feet” end. Should I call Funeral Director Jim back again?

    And yes, Mihow, I just called him up. How far we’ve come, huh? Used to be you had to look all that stuff up on the internet. Now, with that TELEPHONE thingy, stuff’s way easier. :)

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  13. ah ok.

    That makes sense if there are two different ends. I thought, for some reason, it was like a bed. And unless you have the craft-o-matic there ain’t no difference.

    Tell Jim, he’s swell and that if I ever die, I’ll let him put me in one of his caskets.

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  14. Girl27, that’s some funny shit. Good luck with that book.

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  15. Re: flipping the body around. Don’t most caskets “split” in the middle? You rarely see a full body at a viewing.

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  16. the top splits, but the entire casket doesn’t. you’re thinking of magic tricks and the circus.

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  17. ASS YOU! YOU KNOW WHAT I MEANT!

    I’m having really bizarre visions right now of the Amazing Funeral Circus.

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  18. ya da dada dada da da da da (ok.. that was supposed to be the circus themesong… lost in translation)

    Ass you!!

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  19. I think “Six Feet Under” should have a circus funeral with all sorts of animals and music. Maybe they could do a gag with a bunch of clowns coming out of a really small coffin. Ruth would love it and dance around, but Rico wouldn’t think it’s funny, the little sourpuss.

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  20. GotJesus, I just went to Barnes and Noble to buy a map of the world and while waiting in line and trying to remember the book you mentioned, I saw it sitting there, on the shelf. So I picked it up. :]

    Reply

  21. It was am impulse purchase for me, too. I was there to buy Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, which I also thoroughly enjoyed, when I saw “Stiff” on the shelf. I couldn’t resist. Really neat stuff.

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  22. really neat stiff, indeed.

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  23. I just received an email from a shy person:

    “I couldn’t help myself getting involved with this one. I’m not sure if I’m right about the head always being on the left side but it may be that the funeral people (while they take the casket in and out of the funeral place, car, church, car again, and burial site, etc.) always know where the head is for burial in the right direction.”

    perhaps it’s routine?

    Imagine if a couple were burried head to foot?! Probably something the man whined about for ages while alive.

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  24. Smart thinking, ShyPerson! Keep the universal standard, and you’re not going to mess up. Hopefully.

    I imagine a head to foot couple going through eternity together. The nagging from her, “Your feet smell like soils and worms!” The constant sighs of disapproval from him, “I TOLD you we shouldn’t have used your nephew’s business…”

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  25. “Probably something the man whined about for ages while alive.” are you talkin’ 69 woman?

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  26. I am, dirtybird. I am.

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  27. I received another message:

    ‘because we do everything from left to right in our culture’

    See, I’m not sure about that one either. I want it to be more exciting than that.

    DAMNIT!

    Reply

  28. My brother-in-law is a mortician. I’ll see what he has to say…

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  29. Lake, can you see my site yet?

    (sorry to hijack Mihow’s site for my silly questions)

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  30. According to yesterday’s comments, yes, she can. :] All is well now.

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  31. Finally – yes I can! The problem remains a mystery!

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  32. Okay, here’s what the brother-in-law had to say – its all just tradition. Just the way its always been. That’s just how the caskets are always assembly built. If you want a casket that goes the other way – you have to special order it, which you can do. He said that when he has people who have injuries to the left side of their face, he has turned them around – its not like you can’t have the person the other way. Also, because of the way they are ‘just made’ – the adjustment screws on the less expensive models are always on the left, so you can adjust the bed there, underneath where the head would go, but not at the foot end.
    He’s going to ask around at the shop, though, and see if anyone has ever heard of how the ‘tradition’ got started. It has nothing to do with knowing where the person’s head is for burial!! (Although it does make it easier!) How’s that???

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  33. And by the way—I am barely computer literate (unlike the rest of you pros!!) so Toby’s suggestions for not being able to access Freakgirl was totally over my head!

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  34. by the way, Lake, thanks for all the information!

    I do wonder if there is a reason behind the tradition, though. Because waaaaaaayyyy back when, I’m assuming caskets did not have hinges. Then again, I don’t know nothin!

    Again, thanks. :] It must be super cool having a brother in law in the biz.

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  35. If I get any more ‘scoop’ from him, I’ll pass it along!
    I don’t know if I’d consider it really cool—especially when he tries to touch me with hands that recently were inside a dead person!!

    Reply

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