Editor's note: This is the latest installment in a series of stories taking a look at services, public offices and infrastructure we rely on every day but may not fully understand.
The coroner’s job seems obvious.
Dealing with the deceased. And it sounds fairly simple: pronouncing the cause of death. However there is lot of behind-the-scenes work in the details of cause of death scenarios.
Aside from running his own funeral home, Coroner Jim Coplin has a part-time job doing a full-time job making sure that the paperwork for all the county deaths is properly dealt with.
“It is a busy county, just myself and one deputy coroner,” Coplin said. “We probably do two or three deaths a day. That sounds like very few, but a death might take up four or five hours a day, and we have our regular jobs. The coroner’s office is a part-time job.”
“By regulations I’m required to determine the cause or manner of death and complete a death certificate,” he said. “There’s a lot more to it than that. You have to do an investigation into the death, talk to doctors, get a medical history, and talk to family.”
As part of his official duties, some of the more difficult work the coroner has is working with the families of the deceased. Allowing family access to the body and scene of death can vary greatly depending on location and cause of death.
“Working with the public is the biggest part of what we do,” he said. “It’s more than working with just the bodies. We have to contact family members, notify next of kin of deaths. They’re always upset, they want to view the body. We have to prepare the body for them to view. We have to clean them up the best we can, without destroying evidence to let them view the body.
“In the case of a homicide, we don’t let them view the body, we won’t let them into the death scene because of the investigation. We don’t let them view it here [at the funeral home], because we don’t know who actually had a part in the homicide, we don’t want anyone to plant evidence or take evidence away.”
Working with the various police agencies is an integral part of the coroner’s position. Although everyone has to work together at a death scene, the coroner has a somewhat different goal when processing the death scene.
“With law enforcement, you have to work together,” he said. “The scene belongs to the police, the body belongs to the coroner. What I usually do is, go in, look at the body, see what’s going on, talk to law enforcement. I won’t move the body until they're finished. Once they’re done, then I do what I need to. We do work with mostly law enforcement, a lot with ambulance personnel, fire departments.
“You have to work independent from the rest of the agencies, you’re responsible for the person that died. You’re looking out for the person that passed away.”
The biggest decision at the time of a death is to determine the cause of death. If there is ambiguity on the cause of death, Coplin will order an autopsy.
“If it’s their age, their circumstance of death, if you get somebody that’s middle-aged or younger, all of sudden is found dead, no health issues, no medical records to go by, then we do an autopsy,” he said. “If it’s somebody 95 years old, you find them dead, you know there’s some kind of issues at that point.”
If the cause of death may be due to drugs or alcohol, Coplin may take blood and tissue samples from the body and order a toxicology report.
“If it’s a drug overdose, if they have a long history of drug abuse, what we generally do is talk to the family,” he said. “We will do a toxicology. An autopsy may cost $2,200 versus a toxicology which may cost $200. That will show what’s in their blood at the time of death. That saves doing an autopsy. If there is any kind of question at all on younger people with drug overdoses, we’ll do an autopsy.”
With modern technology and medical advances today, very few deaths happen without the coroner knowing the cause of death. Coplin said that they may have only three or four undetermined deaths out of an average of 600 per year. Still, some deaths are simply unexplainable.
“We had a case where a lady died, we found a suicide note,” he said. “There were no weapons, nothing to kill herself with. Unusual position for a suicide. We did an autopsy on her, the only thing we found was heart disease. Where the suicide note come in, I have no idea, kind of an unusual situation.”
Waiting for the results of ordered tests creates some of the most time-consuming problems for the coroner. Coplin spends much of his day taking phone calls about his cases, most for which he simply does not yet have answers.
“It takes 6-8 weeks to get an autopsy report back,” he said. “When you wait six weeks for a family to find out why someone has died, every day they’re calling us. We have no say in this, we are at the mercy of the pathologist. I’ve had six requests today for reports that I don’t have.”
So much of the wait on reports is due to a backlog from the pathologist’s office that covers this area. One physician has to do all of the autopsies for an immense area of Missouri.
“We have one forensic pathologist from this side of the state,” he said. “He is from Jefferson County, which is a medical examiner’s county, from here all the way down to Arkansas. He is the only one from this area. It’s done in this county. If someone from the Bootheel needs an autopsy, they drive them all the way up here and do it in Farmington.”
The coroner also has to sign a permit for a body to be cremated.