What do I know about dead bodies, guns, or fires? I’ve been a high school English teacher most of my life. Since I’m working on a novel that has all three, I decided I needed to do some sleuthing and find out as much as I could. I interviewed several local people to get information that would make my novel more realistic, especially since it is set in the fictional small town of Endurance, Illinois.
The first interview for my book in progress, A Silent Place to Die, was with Bill Underwood, county coroner for Warren County, Illinois. During my interview I was struck by three things: how knowledgeable he was, how compassionate he was toward the victims and their families, and how up to date he was on the changes in his field. He is definitely a professional in every way.
I was looking for answers to questions about the deaths of my characters. When researching a book, authors learn far more than they can ever use, but sometimes those journeys off the beaten path result in ideas the author hadn’t considered before. So all research is ultimately important.
I was particularly interested in shootings, stabbings, and fire deaths. And no, my interest has no connection whatsoever with the students I taught over the past forty-four years. Not even subconsciously.
I asked Bill for his qualifications for the coroner’s job since I know he isn’t a doctor. He studied mortuary science so he is eminently qualified to deal with death and dead bodies. It became apparent, as I questioned him, that he has seen some amazing circumstances during his time on the job.
In our county, Underwood is the gateway for laying people to rest. Usually he has 140 cases a year and 250 deaths. He signs both death and cremation certificates and both are filed electronically. No one can be buried or cremated without a signed certificate, so if there is a question, the certificate is held up until the death is investigated. The coroner can also order an autopsy even if the family does not agree. Whenever there is any suspicion about a death, the coroner has checks that can keep a body from being disposed of until the suspicion is put to rest.
The coroner orders tests when there is an autopsy. Usually he does toxicology tests and tissue blocks, and he always keeps sample tissues. The best test, especially for DUI, is from the vitreous fluid in the eye. [I don’t even want to think about that one.] The medical authorities also save samples of tissue from brain, liver, lungs and other organs.
Bill is called out to home deaths, ER deaths, hospital deaths less than 24 hours old, suicides, homicides, and sometimes hospice deaths.
When he is called to a death scene, Bill takes photos or has the Illinois State Police take photos, say, in a gunshot death. He talks to authorities and witnesses at the scene and, in the case of a fire, waits for the fire marshal. The coroner has two jobs at the scene: (1) get the body removed once photos and an exam are done; and (2) notify the family. The latter is very important and, unfortunately, because private citizens can now buy scanners and hear the names, notification sometimes becomes a nightmare.
Several examinations determine cause and manner of death. At the scene the coroner checks for the time of death which might be determined by rigor mortis and/or lividity. Rigor mortis is the stiffening and contraction of the muscles due to chemical reactions that take place within the muscle cells after death. Lividity is the discoloration of portions of the body due to gravity which causes stagnant blood to settle into lower areas of the body [D.P. Lyle, Forensics: A Guide for Writers.]Sometimes the coroner takes the body temperature. In adults the core temperature goes down one degree per hour and in children two degrees per hour after death.
If the death is suspicious, Underwood accompanies the body to an autopsy or one of his deputies does. He has four deputies scattered through local funeral homes. It is important to keep the “chain of evidence” intact. Bill signs a card saying he has checked the body at the scene and accompanied it, or caused it to be accompanied by qualified personnel.
I asked Underwood about inquests because I remember reading about them in newspapers. In fact, in Galesburg I read a newspaper account of an inquest concerning a fire that happened years ago, resulting in a fatality. Inquests were public meetings that always used to be held because of the law. But recently the law was changed to say an inquest “may” be held. So rarely are they held now except in the case of a suspicious death. The coroner can call the inquest with a jury pool of six people. He brings in witnesses and uses depositions to indicate the cause of death and how it will be labeled. There are five causes of death: homicide, suicide, natural, undetermined, and accidental.
Funny, but in my book no one dies naturally. I believe it has several homicides. Who says a retired English teacher’s life is dull?