After a While, 5 to 10 Corpses A Day Becomes Part of the Routine

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Examining decomposed bodies, investigating whereabouts of long lost relatives and sawing through bone is all in a typical day of an Oakland Coroner Investigator. 

Behind the façade of the well-kept, clean office is an environment where employees deposit dead bodies and investigate the living. A few coroners let us in on the secret behind seeing dead people on a constant basis.

Veteran Supervising Coroner Investigator Dan Apperson still remembers his first day on the job working as a coroner's assistant. Memories still linger of the first dead bodies he worked with.

"The first thing I saw was a body. The rope was still around the neck," Apperson said, recalling the body of a young man who hung himself. "Another one of my cases was a railroad worker who got caught between two trains. I will never forget them."

Although he worked as a nurse previous to working at the coroner's office, he said the experience at his new job was nothing in comparison.

"My first year (as a coroner's assistant) was probably the worst in my life. I probably talked about quitting here about 10 times, before realizing it was my home," Apperson said.

Daily Cal Staff/Rob Katzer
Bright neon lights illuminate the entrance of the Coroner's Bureau in downtown Oakland. Most coroners spend very little time in these offices.

Apperson said on average, the office receives and examines five bodies a day and investigates 20 to 25 cases daily.

Coroner Investigator Norman McAdams said his job allows him to see what others can not.

"I've seen more things than most people are ever going to see," McAdams said.

The media image that portrays coroners dealing solely with dead people is largely false, he said. Much of the job also consists of dealing with the living.

"Most people here are inquisitive. It's almost like being a detective, you have to piece together someone's life and track down their next of kin they haven't seen in 20 years," he said.

The duty of a coroner is to label the cause of death; whether it be natural, accidental, homicide, suicide or undetermined. In addition, coroners sometimes have to locate family members if a victim has hospital injuries and also inform members if there is a death in the family.

"You're not stuck in the office, you're going out, researching things, going to people's houses, (and) talking to people. (You are) interviewing people from doctors to the homeless guy on the corner. It's just a wide range of folks you get to deal with on a regular basis," McAdams said.

Apperson said the job field for coroner work is very competitive, pointing out it's a "slow ladder" for someone to raise up the job rankings, the highest being supervisor.

McAdams said applicants for the job usually have previous experience dealing with bodies, usually from working as a paramedic, nurse, police officer or as a member of the funeral industry.

He also said applicants must have at least a bachelor's degree in criminal justice or in the medical field.

Apperson said some people leave the job after a month because of the amount of money and labor involved requiring investigators to work odd hour shifts and work overtime.

Coroner investigators get paid $1867-$2252 biweekly, depending on experience, cost of living and duties, according to last year's county coroner's office budget.

Once hired, the coroner-in-training then attends the coroner's academy in order to receive basic requirements for the job, McAdams said.

"We do spend the period working in the morgue, assisting with autopsies, for at least a month.  (It is also spent) learning anatomy and physiology and seeing different kinds of wounds," he said.

Apperson said it was shocking to work at the morgue, because unlike hospital autopsies, the morgue bodies consisted of young people who did not die of natural causes.

"There were very traumatizing entries, (bodies) with the arms and legs off, heads off, and decomposed bodies. It wasn't no picnic here," he said.

But both McAdams and Apperson said the dead bodies no longer bother them. McAdams, who previously worked for the army, said he has autopsied over a hundred bodies, using instruments such as a bone saw and scalpel on a regular basis.

"I've learned a lot doing this job that you've never learned anywhere else, without going to medical school. I've worked on over a hundred autopsies during my time here.  That's more than doctors do in general practice," he said.

Apperson said nowadays, working with dead bodies leaves his thoughts once he steps out of the office.

"It's a matter of your mind. After you get off work, (you begin) blocking (the bodies) out," Apperson said.

"You never forget your first ones but you hardly remember your last one."


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