County coroner: One tough job
In the mid 1970s I worked for a couple of years in Cheyenne, Wyoming. A few people in funeral service still remember my presence out West, but this was so long ago that the State Board of Embalmers in Wyoming had actually lost and forgotten that I had been licensed in that wonderful state. My record of licensure was so old that the state had purged the files and when I needed verification a few years ago they did not have a clue who I was, which happens all the time. I got it straightened out, and my license number for any funeral sleuth out there is #377.
My employer was also the County Coroner. Back in the time I am writing about funeral directors across Wyoming ran for the County Coroner’s office. I believe the system has changed in a few Wyoming counties, but in the 1970s it was almost a community expectation that the local funeral director or one of the local funeral directors would be the County Coroner.
This happened during the summer of 1973 and a funeral director from Laramie, Wyoming wanted to go on vacation with his wife for a week and he needed a rent-a-funeral-director and I was selected to temporarily move into his really nice home for a week and watch the business. This funeral director was also the County Coroner, and hence I was temporarily deputized as the County Coroner in conjunction with a County Judge who would be really in charge if anything would happen. I was not “Quincy” in any stretch of the imagination.
As this Laramie funeral director and his wife drove off for their fun week, I was standing in their driveway waving and he left me with these prophetic words, “Todd, don’t worry, we have been real slow; nothing will happen.” I was so young and new to funeral service that I actually believed him. Youth is wasted on the young.
For three days nothing happened. It was organized boredom. I mowed the grass, vacuumed the carpet, washed the coach three times in the same day, took naps, watched TV (I enjoyed the Price Is Right), played with the organ in the chapel, dusted off embalming fluid bottles, counted the supply of calendars, washed the coach again, talked to myself in the office, answered possibly three phone calls, cleaned the whitewalls of the coach, swept the sidewalks, counted trocar tips, cleaned lip brushes with DryWash and basically kept busy without having any funerals.
This funeral director’s wife was a lovely person and she had stocked the freezer with steaks, really nice steaks. I grilled out by myself, watched TV by myself, and it was actually like a little vacation.
The vacation ends
At 7 a.m. the funeral home phone rang and it was the County Judge announcing to me that the Wyoming State Police had found two teenage auto fatalities at the bottom of a canyon about 20 miles northeast of Laramie. He gave me instructions and said he would meet me at the scene. He sounded might provoked.
In forty minutes I was at the scene of the crash. It looked like two young chaps had been traveling at a fast speed, missed a hairpin curve and off the road they went airborne. Gravity quickly pulled the car and them to the bottom of a deep narrow canyon. The crash was horrific. One young lad was thrown from the vehicle and the other lad sat in the driver’s seat. Both boys were dead, no question.
The Wyoming State Police did their investigations and concluded that it was a open and shut case; no foul play was involved and the officers (who were really professional and nice) gave permission to remove the boys from the canyon. The County Judge, who clearly was not yet awake, looked at me and said, “Go ahead.” I had never removed a dead body from a canyon before. I had no heavy equipment, but with the help of a couple of the law officers, we succeeded in getting both bodies up on the road, and eventually into my vehicle.
The bodies were identified and the officers looked at the County Judge and said “You need to go notify the next of kin about these deaths.” The County Judge in turn looked at me and said “You need to go notify the next of kin about these deaths.” It was really my first experience with the popular human concept of “professionally passing the buck.”
The Wyoming State Police were interested in wrapping things up, and the County Judge was interested in going back to bed – anyway that is how he impressed (or depressed) me.
The law officers gave me the addresses from the drivers licenses and the County Judge drove off in his car, as did the police in their cruisers. I walked back to my vehicle with two dead boys in the back and two addresses and drove by myself back into Laramie. Both families lived in Laramie.
The Coroner’s Office was in the funeral home I was temporarily watching over, so I took both bodies back to the funeral home and placed them in the preparation room and walked back to the office and sat down. I did not know what to do. They did not cover this situation in Mortuary College. First I thought of phoning, but my heart told me that would not be right.
It was by now 10 a.m. and Laramie was full of morning activities. I looked at the addresses, found a map and located where the two families lived, and still sat in my chair. Truth is, I was terrified. I was only in my early 20s, still a kid in many respects, and was faced with a situation that I never dreamed in my life would happen. I was also slow upstairs, because when I was made a temporary Deputy County Coroner what in the devil did I think might possibly happen? I was never the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Just as I was ready to leave to go see the first family the phone rang. It was a Roman Catholic priest; one of the fatalities was a member of his parish and somehow he had heard about the accident and volunteered to go and tell the bereaved family, who he knew very well, what had happened. He asked me if that would be all right? ALL RIGHT? Certainly that would be fine. To this day I don’t know if this was legal, but at the time I didn’t care. The priest was a godsend. I have often looked back at this intervention. We did not have any beepers, voice mail, cell phones or anything else offering immediate contact, so if I had left one minute earlier I would have missed the priest’s phone call.
However I received no such rescuing from notifying the other bereaved family; I was on my own. I remember driving up in front of the house. I rechecked the address; I had the right place. Then I drove around the block about ten times. I felt a pit in my stomach, I was lightheaded, and I wanted to run back to Cheyenne. That however was not possible. This was hardball, so I parked the car, got out, walked up the front steps and rang the doorbell.
A nice looking woman maybe about 35 years old opened the door. I stood there, a total stranger, and the following events were probably not handled properly, most anybody could have done better. Trust me, I have had many people offer me suggestions on what I should or could or would have done when I tell them this story, but I was on my own and I was making it up as I went.
The woman, who was the deceased young boy’s mother, looked at me and she knew immediately that something had happened. She asked, “Who is hurt?” I just responded by saying, “I am Todd Van Beck, and I am with the Coroner’s office.” The mother then responded with, “Who is hurt; is it my son or husband?” Then out it came, “Mrs. _____, your son ______ was killed this morning.” The mother looked at me and said, “How bad is it?”
Let’s freeze this frame for a moment. Now after many years of teaching psychology of grief I can recognize this mother’s reaction as pure denial, and totally understandable denial. Denial is a powerful emotion that protects our psyches from taking in horrible information all at once, which would certainly be detrimental and overwhelming. Denial is like a psychological filter, a natural neurological function which allows the person to take in terrible news in small bites. The mother certainly heard the words “coroner” and the word “killed,” – and we all rationally know that the County Coroner rarely if ever makes official social calls, and what “killed” means.
In about fifteen minutes after a cycle of physiological responses such as sighing, shaking, weakness, and silence except for some quiet weeping, she looked at me and said “Is my boy really dead?” “Yes he is, I am so sorry.” Then she looked at me and said “My husband is at work in the mine and we are in the middle of getting divorced.” I just sat there in silence. I felt so sorry for her.
Just by accident and not by any sophisticated design I asked her if I could get a neighbor to come in and stay with her. She told me the name and I walked over and asked the neighbor if she could come over, and the neighbor was as shaken and stunned as the mother, but at least the mother now had someone she knew instead of me, a total stranger, with her.
The mother instructed that the funeral home I was watching over was to handle the funeral and with that information I took my leave. The family came in later to make the arrangements, the funeral was taken care of in a professional manner, and the young lad was buried.
What I remember most about this was the utter relief, anxiety, confusion, nervousness, insecurity, and general tension I felt when I walked back to the car. I was not in a hurry to get out, but at the same time I knew that my life would never, ever be the same. I felt a myriad of emotions. I welled up and when I had gotten far enough from the house, I just broke down (I have always been a blub) and sat in the car alone weeping. The entire incident simply shook me to the core, which looking back, it should have.
I never found out the fate of the people involved. Did they get divorced? I don’t know. How did life go for them after I returned to Cheyenne? I don’t know. Eventually I moved back to Iowa, then into mortuary education, but I have never forgotten this dramatic and traumatic event and the people involved.
It made me a more sensitive funeral director, and it certainly gave an additional depth to my later lecturing and teaching.
Most everybody in our great profession can share similar experiences; it is just a part of the environment. I certainly did not handle it properly, because I was just making it up as I went, and for many years to come when I looked back I chastised myself by thinking that I ought to have said this, or I could have said that – but in the end I did not do any of that. I just stumbled through the situation as I have done with many other life events.
In the end, over the veil of time this tough experience taught me that misery lies across the face of the earth. There is enough misery to go around for everybody. It taught me that those in our profession cannot easily pick and choose what aspects of funeral service we are interested in and what aspects of funeral service we are not interested in. In the end, death is an equal opportunity employer. Anything can happen anywhere, and at anytime.
I did learn one firm inviolable lesson however: When a funeral director tells you that they have not been busy, and that probably nothing is going to happen, my suggestion is that we not take those words too much to heart.
Anyway that’s one old undertaker’s opinion. TVB