Raschael Ellering, a death investigator for the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office, looked over her shoulder as she headed down the stairwell to the basement. “Can you smell it?” she asked.
She was referring to the body of a man that had lain dead on a bed in his hot apartment for days. The stench pushed out of the body bag and beyond tightly sealed doors to hang stubbornly in the hallways. In the processing room, a technician removed clothes from the swollen, peeling, purple body in preparation for a possible autopsy.
For Ellering and her colleagues in the investigative unit of the medical examiner’s office in downtown Minneapolis, the sensory invasion of death and decay is routine. A recent day’s work included rolling a 350-pound body onto a gurney, running her fingers through the fine hair of an infant to discern its color, checking the groin of an elderly man, dead for two hours, to see if he’d recently had heart surgery and comforting the estranged relative of a man who’d died weeks before.
The work they do gets Hollywood glamour treatment on television shows. In the real world, the job means wearing waterproof boots to protect feet from bursting blisters on bodies, inexpensive clothing they can easily trash and post-work swims in chlorinated pools to clear nasal passages of the stench.
The investigators do the scientific and the sensitive work of death, often at the same time. When they arrive at a death scene, sometimes a body will be days old. Sometimes the death will have been sudden, and distraught, angry relatives and neighbors are swirling at the site.
“That’s the best thing about this job: I am literally never going to go to a scene where it’s the same as the day before,” Ellering said.
Hennepin County, the regional hub for deaths in Dakota and Scott counties, performs about 1,100 autopsies per year. The post-mortem exams by physicians are conducted when a death meets certain criteria, such as a young person dying without warning.
Chief medical examiner Andrew Baker touts the office’s national accreditation and leadership role in setting standards and training across the country. He credits the work of the “flexible, mobile” investigators for the office’s reputation even though they toil without acclaim day and night from the basement of the county medical examiner’s office in the shadow of the new Minnesota Vikings stadium.
Across the nation, the quality of death investigations varies widely. In some places, a sheriff might pick up a body without a standard processing of the scene. In other places, requirements are strict.
In Hennepin County, the work is standardized and swift. The restrooms have telephones and intercoms so no one is out of contact. Investigators are on duty 24 hours a day.
A tour of the investigators’ subterranean headquarters includes the cooler for unidentified bodies, the exam room and the processing room where investigators like Ellering and technicians do the initial work of weighing bodies and removing them from bags for the exams.
On a recent morning shift, the first body to arrive was that of a young child, still in diapers, who had died the night before. Ellering unwrapped the little body and cradled it in her arms as she carried it to the infant scale. Because this was a child who had died suddenly, there would be an autopsy.
She measured the baby’s height, opened the eyes to see their color and spent a couple of minutes trying to discern the shade of the wispy hair.
The toughest cases
“The sad thing is how many of these we see,” she said, adding that “positional” deaths — when a baby is placed on its stomach or suffocates from loose bedding — are most troubling because they might have been easily prevented.
The job’s toughest cases are the deaths of babies and suicides, she said. And deaths from autoerotic asphyxiation are especially sensitive to explain to survivors.
She scrutinized the child’s body. “I’m just looking for anything obviously concerning until the doctors are able to look,” she said. She threaded an identification tag around the baby’s ankle; the toes were too tiny. Then she wrapped up the body and rolled it into a cooler. The next step was to reach the next of kin.
Gathering the sad facts
A short while later, 17-year investigator Stephanie Glanz reached one of the child’s parents, posing a series of questions about the baby’s health, whether the child had seen a pediatrician, was taking medications or had thrush. Glanz asked how long the mother’s pregnancy had lasted, whether she’d breast-fed, had a family history of infant loss and how long she was in the hospital after the child was born. She then informed the parent that the body would undergo an autopsy and then be moved to a funeral home.
Glanz, who has four kids of her own, said of the difficult call: “This is my job. I don’t take it home with me.”
Ellering, who makes similar calls to relatives, said, “You never really know what you’re going to get on the other end of that line. … There’s some people who don’t want to know anything and some people who want to know everything.”
She had been on the phone that day for 25 minutes with the estranged relative of a man she was trying to legally identify. Ellering voiced a series of quiet assurances interspersed with questioning.
“As you get older and there’s more and more people that you lose, it’s tough to take that all in,” she said. Then, “I apologize if I’ve asked already, but do you recall if [he] has a regular dentist?”
She advised the relative against seeing the body, saying, “It’s been a little while since he passed away.”
Contrary to depictions in TV shows and movies, real-life relatives rarely view bodies.
Shortly after that call, the phone rang with notice of the body of an older man last seen alive a couple of hours earlier by his neighbors. She packed her gear in an SUV with the office’s logo and drove to a ragged apartment on a quiet street in Minneapolis. She was greeted by a police officer, who had secured the area and was keeping an overly nosy — and drunk — neighbor out of the dead man’s home. “Here’s some pills I found and his wallet,” the officer said.
Together, she and the officer counted the cash in the man’s wallet, placed it in an envelope, signed and sealed it.
The neighbors who found the man arrived in the hallway as Ellering was taking photos and rolling the body to check for injuries. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” she said.
The warm apartment reeked of stale cigarettes. But investigators don’t get to pick their death spots. Ellering and the others say that about once a month they encounter a “hoarder” house full of garbage. Once she had to enlist firefighters to shovel trash so she could get to a body.
When a baby dies, Ellering pulls out a tool of her trade — a doll. She will conduct a re-enactment with the person who last “placed” the child and the person who found the child. “Usually everybody’s so in shock, they want to talk to you,” she said.
Ellering said she and her colleagues decompress with inside jokes and dark humor. Outside of work, it’s harder. “No one really understands what you do, so you can’t really explain it,” she said.