Turn on a TV crime drama, read the headlines to some of the biggest stories in the nation or happen upon a cordoned-off crime scene, and you'll get an idea of why coroners and medical examiners are not only important in society, but also pretty cool to boot.
The duty of a coroner is to determine the truth about how a person died. This not only helps determine whether further criminal investigation is necessary, but it also helps bring answers and closure to grieving families.
Some coroners and medical examiners perform autopsies themselves; other times, they simply study the findings of an autopsy. Additionally, they must determine a time of death, which aids not only police, but also prosecutors as they try to hang a murder conviction on a killer.
Coroners and medical examiners are basically the same thing, except coroners are elected and, as such, don't need a medical degree. Medical examiners are appointed and are normally required to have a medical license.
While coroners may give some people the creeps, they actually have really cool jobs. And as you'll see in the following pages, it's good work if you can find it.
Satisfy Your Morbid Sense of Curiosity
If you're a person who delights in finding answers to the seemingly unexplainable, imagine the thrill you'd get when a dead body turns up and everyone looks to you for the answer. Nearly every workday represents a new riddle for a coroner, who must then use knowledge, curiosity and legal authority to solve it.
The phrase "morbid sense of curiosity" might as well be the chief qualification a person needs in order to become a coroner. After all, there's nothing more curious than an unexplained or sudden death.
While many jobs are tedious and repetitive, a coroner's duties frequently involve bringing sense to the apparently senseless, and answers to questions regarding life and death.
For the morbidly curious, there's a big allure to being the first to know about a suspicious death. While curious amateurs must await the next breaking news update to find the answers they seek, medical examiners can take satisfaction in knowing that their work is the breaking news, and the news won't break until their work is done.
Next, we'll learn what's cooler than catching a killer: nothing.
Providing Evidence to Catch Murderers
The first call that goes out when a mysterious death has occurred is (often by law) to the coroner's office. If the death is violent or suspicious, or its cause is simply unknown, the coroner or medical examiner gets to investigate and make an official determination.
The purpose of the investigation is to determine if any criminal or negligent act has occurred. Not all apparent suicides are in fact suicides -- some are accidents (as can occur during autoerotic asphyxiation), and some are concealed acts of foul play. If it's determined someone has died from accidental prescription drug overdose, this enables the police to look into whether or not another person illegally provided the prescription drugs to the deceased.
One of the most elusive murderers to catch is the medical professional who has deliberately overdosed a relatively healthy patient using painkillers. One example is England's Dr. Harold Shipman, who was convicted in 2000 of killing 15 patients by overdose but is believed to have killed as many as 260. When a death occurs in a hospital, many states and counties require the coroner or medical examiner to pin down the cause of death so that intentional acts of malice (or just extreme negligence) don't go unpunished.
As we'll learn next, medical examiners do more than unravel the mysteries of the dead -- they also help the living.
A Value to Society
Medical examiners do much more than determine the cause and time of death -- they help bring closure and a sense of understanding to loved ones of the deceased.
Once a body has been signed over to a coroner or medical examiner, it remains in his or her legal possession until further arrangements are made. As such, the coroner's interactions with the family of the deceased play an important part in how they process the death of their loved one. In fact, it's often a medical examiner who's responsible in the first place for identifying and notifying the deceased's next-of-kin.
When you die, you more than likely hope to leave something of sentimental or financial value to a loved one. But what happens to items on your person -- such as your wedding ring, your photos, your jewelry and your cash -- when you die?
Well, if your remains have passed into the custody of a coroner or medical examiner, the good news is that your personal belongings are safe (and the bad news is that you've died suddenly and mysteriously). The medical examiner logs and oversees the custody of any items, valuables or cash on the body of the deceased, and he may take those items into account when determining the cause and time of death.
Not only do coroners serve as custodians of the deceased and their belongings, but they also serve as custodians of justice, as we'll discuss next.
An Instrument of Justice
If there's been foul play at the county jail, the hospital or in the mayor's bedroom, the medical examiner is the peoples' first and often best chance to uncover the truth.
Coroners and medical examiners aren't supposed to comment on or interpret what events transpired to cause a death. They only determine the time and cause of death. If a person dies of poisoning, it's not up to them to determine if it was accidental or murder -- that's for the police to sort out. By factually determining the cause of death without interpreting it, medical examiners are much less likely to skew the perception of investigators working a potential homicide.
The task is (supposed to be) objective, meaning that if medical malpractice, police brutality or an act of negligence is to blame, the medical examiner will provide a fact-based explanation for the cause of death, allowing the public to feel confident that the truth, no matter how ugly, will be exposed.
And medical examiners, as we'll see in the next section, can pick up the check.
There are a lot of good reasons why a person would become a coroner or medical examiner, and pay is among them.
It's a special responsibility that requires a unique person who not only has a hunger for the truth, but the skills and abilities to uncover it. Most local governments understand the value of attracting -- and keeping -- a talented coroner or medical examiner, and they provide financial compensation that serves those ends.
Plus, most people don't have to spend portions of their days around dead bodies, let alone make sense of how they died. It's safe to say coroners and medical examiners deserve every penny they get, if not more.
Salary for a coroner varies from state to state, county to county, and year to year. However, compared to the average salary of working adults in America and the average salary of government employees in the county where they work, medical examiners do pretty well for themselves no matter where they work.
Salaries generally range from around $100,000 to as high as $250,000. Additionally, coroners and medical examiners receive government benefits such as health and dental insurance, matching 401k funds and retirement.
When their skills are needed in a civil trial, a medical examiner may get a hefty consulting fee in exchange for being an expert witness.
As we'll see next, another cool thing about being a coroner or medical examiner is seeing your profession represented in nearly every police drama on television.
Let's face it -- we'd all like to have a job that's prominently featured in police-procedural TV shows (other than that of the landlord whose tenant mysteriously died, that is). Imagine the self-satisfaction you'd feel creating a sense of awe in others as you tell everyone within earshot of the television, "That's what I do for a living."
There are many cool things about being a coroner or medical examiner, and prestige is one of them. When there's a high-profile death, everyone must wait for you to announce the official cause. And until that announcement comes, the rest of us have to wait, wonder and blindly speculate.
In the case of singer Michael Jackson's death, the Los Angeles medical examiner required more than half a year to complete a full report, and barely a day went by when the nature of Jackson's death wasn't discussed in the press. When the report was completed, its findings -- that Jackson died of an overdose of the surgical anesthetic propofol that was administered by his own personal physician -- made headlines worldwide and led to charges against Jackson's physician.
Along with the prestige comes elbow room. Nobody can rush a coroner or medical examiner's investigation, or interfere with its outcome -- the examiner must be left alone to do his or her extremely cool job.
Better Hours than Other Doctors
If you're in the medical field, there's a lot less pressure when the subjects coming through your door are already dead. Plus, without a life hanging in the balance, work for a medical examiner quite often can be put off until the next day.
While doctors, interns, nurses, EMTs and many other medical professionals are often required to work grueling hours, your local coroner or medical examiner is more likely to keep pretty regular office hours -- Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Depending on the county, the medical examiner may be required to be on-call at times (or even all the time), and increased workloads may require overtime hours. Or the medical examiner may be contacted during off-hours for an especially pressing, controversial or mysterious case. But for the most part, they clock in and clock out at the same time each workday. There may be new work waiting first thing in the morning in the county or hospital morgue, but work remaining at the end of the day can be put on ice until the next day's shift.
If you work in a sparsely populated area, the post may require only part-time hours, which would also allow you to hold down a private practice. And time not spent investigating deaths can, as we'll see next, be spent teaching others how to prevent them.
Opportunity to Teach
If you're a medical student, there's a local cache of cadavers down at the medical examiner's office waiting to tell their story, but the story must be passed through the mind and mouth of the medical examiner.
In order to help prevent death, medical students must know how it occurs, and an excellent candidate for explaining this is a working medical examiner. One couldn't ask for a better or more current cache of real-life (or rather, real-death) examples.
Many medical examiners are called upon to teach future doctors and nurses -- and even criminal investigators -- about causes of death, detecting said causes, and the effects on the human body of diseases, lifestyle choices and foul play. Many high school students also tour coroners' offices, either as part of biology or other science curriculum, or possibly as a "scared straight" type of program. For the coroner or medical examiner who'd always felt an urge to teach, getting to do just that is an excellent perk of the job.
But getting a job and keeping it can be two very different things. We'll find out how secure a gig as a coroner or medical examiner really is in the next section.
In some parts of the country, coroners elected to office cannot be recalled or removed unless it's been proven that they've committed crimes.
This has lead to problems when coroners underperform or allow personal biases to interfere with or obstruct the objective execution of their duties. This is one reason why many states now allow counties to switch from using an elected coroner to an appointed medical examiner. While elected coroners can for the most part only be voted out of office by the people (and can be voted in regardless of qualifications), medical examiners are often required to have medical licensing or training, and serve at the pleasure of the board tasked with appointing them (often a county commission, by any of its names).
Nonetheless, it's such a respected position and specialized field that you'd have to really botch your job badly to embolden a majority (or super-majority, as the case may be) of county-commission types to kick you to the curb.
Next: If the new sheriff in town is the county coroner, you know you've identified a cool profession.
Two Sheriffs in Town
In many parts of the country, the coroner is expected to stand up when the sheriff has gone -- or needs to go -- down.
Throughout American history, sheriffs have doubled as coroners, regardless of medical expertise. This makes sense, as the aims of the sheriff and the coroner are so closely intertwined. This arrangement is not uncommon today in less populated regions, though most counties or municipalities have separated these duties through the use of dedicated coroners or medical examiners.
In many places -- for instance, Peach County, GA -- it's the coroner who assumes the role of sheriff should the sheriff be incapacitated, chiefly because of the law-enforcement nature of the coroner's work and the fact that both are elected positions. Up until the 1970s, the coroner didn't have to wait for the sheriff to be incapacitated; coroners also had the power to arrest and serve as constable. And if it's the sheriff who needs to be served a subpoena, it's the county coroner who often gets the call.
Coroners and medical examiners alike have the power to subpoena medical records and testimony from witnesses.
See the next section for lots more information on coroners and medical examiners.
Who do you call when there's a new disease outbreak? An epidemiologist. These disease detectives investigate the who, what, why, when and where of epidemics worldwide.
- Egan, Timothy. "Critics Say Coroner Puts His Morality Before the Facts." New York Times. March 31, 1996. (Feb. 1, 2011)http://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/31/us/critics-say-coroner-puts-his-morality-before-the-facts.html?src=pm
- Knight, Bernard, CBE. "CROWNER: Origins of the Office of Coroner." Brittania History. 2007. (Feb. 1, 2011)http://www.britannia.com/history/coroner1.html
- Los Angeles County Department of Coroner. (Feb. 1, 2011)http://coroner.lacounty.gov/htm/Coroner_Home.htm
- The official website of Chester County, Pennsylvania. "Duties of the Coroner." (Feb. 1, 2011)http://dsf.chesco.org/coroner/cwp/view.asp?a=3&q=614449
- Ottley, Ted. "Dr. Harold Shipman." TruTV. (Feb. 1, 2011)http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/notorious/shipman/dead_1.html
- Peach County, Georgia. "Peach County Coroner." (Feb. 1, 2011)http://www.peachcounty.net/coroner.cfm
- The Smoking Gun. "Michael Jackson Autopsy Report." Feb. 8, 2010. (Feb. 1, 2011)http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/crime/michael-jackson-autopsy-report
- The Texas Tribune. "Medical Examiner Salaries at Dallas County." (Feb. 1, 2011)http://www.texastribune.org/library/data/government-employee-salaries/dallas-county/departments/medical-examiner/3485/
- Vanderburgh County, Indiana. "Little Known Facts about the Vanderburgh County Coroner's Office." (Feb.1, 2011)http://www.vanderburghgov.org/index.aspx?page=807
- Wisconsin Legislative Council. "Powers and Duties of Coroners and Medical Examiners." Special Committee Staff Brief 04-8. Sept. 2, 2005. (Feb. 1, 2011)http://legis.wisconsin.gov/lc/publications/sb/sb_2004_08.pdf