By Michelle Clark
[Originally published in First Draft, the Guppies newsletter.]
When I tell the other parents on the soccer field what I do for a living, they have several responses: “Wow, that must be really interesting,” or “That’s the coolest job ever” or the dreaded “What’s the grossest thing you’ve seen?”
In reply, I try to explain that what is gross to them isn’t exactly gross to me, avoiding the question especially if the kids are in earshot. There are reasons why the bodies at horrific car accidents are covered up with sheets. Do you really want to see? I can tell you I see it every day. But, don’t get me wrong, I love my job.
I realize I’m very lucky to have the job that I do. Since CSI, forensic science has been introduced to mainstream America - and the field has become flooded. I was very fortunate to not only get a job in the forensics field, but also to stay in Connecticut where my husband and two kids have become rooted.
My luck started when I was still in graduate school for forensic science and working as a molecular technician in a pathology laboratory in Hartford. At that time, I was hired as one of the first civilian crime scene technicians for the Waterbury Police Department. The 24/7 on-call schedule took a toll on my family so, with a sad heart, I left. I will admit, though, that I was happy afterward not to be called out every night to a crime scene.
Fortune fell on me again and a position for a death investigator at the medical examiner’s office opened up.
So what does a death investigator do? It varies from state to state, so I will let you know what I do in Connecticut - which is, by the way, a beautiful setting for any mystery novel.
I am one of 14 death investigators in Connecticut. Our main office, where all the autopsies take place, houses the toxicology lab - and my cubicle - in a three-story building in Farmington. The 14 of us are spread out into jurisdictions each day, to areas where we respond to any fatalities. These fatalities include all suicides, homicides, fatal accidents and fatal overdoses, etc. We respond to the scene, get as much information as we can regarding the circumstances from the police officers or family members, take photographs of the scene and examine the body to be sure that the information that we received matches the wounds we observe on the body.
Police personnel in Connecticut have become accustomed to waiting for me to arrive before touching the body so that we can go over the body slowly and meticulously together. The body is my jurisdiction. I help the police preserve as much evidence on the body as possible. If they want to take evidence off the body to keep from losing it in transit, I make notes of what they take and assist if necessary. I take all the information back to the office where I upload my pictures and write a brief report about the scene so that the medical examiner assigned to the case (we have four M.E.s) has a good idea of what’s going on before the autopsy.
And, no, I don’t remove the body from the scene. We have forensic techs to do that - or a trade service if the techs are busy.
Most of the autopsies are done the next day, unless there is a large number of cases or a backlog from the weekend. Mondays are usually crazy busy. There can be anywhere from one to 20 cases on the board requiring an autopsy. We have three autopsy tables and can do three autopsies at once. If it’s busy, the M.E.s will do a maximum of four cases, each, in one day.
We have a minimum of three forensic techs who assist the M.E.s with their cases (I call them the slicer-and-dicers) and a forensic photographer to document the autopsy. Every body that comes in for an autopsy gets a toxicology screen, regardless of the circumstances of the case.
I usually don’t observe the autopsy in my cases, unless it was something that I haven’t seen and am curious about. Unfortunately, there isn’t much that I haven’t seen.
When I’m not at scenes, I view bodies that are waiting to be cremated. In Connecticut, there is a law that all bodies being cremated have a 48-hour hold placed on them until they can be viewed by a death investigator. I drive from funeral home to funeral home, viewing bodies before they are cremated - so to say I see dead people all day is an understatement.
I am looking for anything suspicious, not just the obvious stab wounds or bullet holes, but bruising, signs of falls or anything traumatic. I can see anywhere from five to 25 bodies in one day for cremations - and that doesn’t include my getting called to a fatal scene. In January, I observed 114 bodies for cremation and went to eight scenes.
To be continued tomorrow...
Top photo by Ken Clark: Michelle Clark wearing an official Office of the Chief Medical Examiner shirt.
Bottom photo by Michelle Clark: The autopsy room at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Connecticut.
Michelle Clark graduated from the University of Hartford in Connecticut with a B.S. in Medical Technology and earned a master’s degree in Forensic Science from the University of New Haven. She currently works as a Death Investigator for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Connecticut. She is board-certified as a Medical Technologist and board-certified as a Molecular Biologist.
While her kids are a great distraction from her job, she finds that writing helps her escape. She tried her hand in the paranormal/romance/mystery genre and finished a 487-page manuscript called Haunted, which still needs to be cleaned up. She is at work on two more WIPs: Jurisdiction of Bodies, about a death investigator who finds herself in the midst of catching a killer in Connecticut, and Note to Self, a mystery/thriller about a CSI who’s getting calls on her answering machine in her own voice, telling her to kill herself.