John Temple's book about the Allegheny County Coroner's office may also turn out, fittingly, to be a kind of obituary.
Nationally, interest in the work coroners do has never been greater. TV shows like CSI celebrate the field of forensic pathology, in which investigators study corpses for clues about mysterious deaths. Deadhouse smartly plays up, and comments upon, that interest. But for Allegheny County residents, the book's release this spring also coincided with another recent development: the May 17 primary, which included a referendum abolishing the elected office of coroner and other county "row offices."
The measure passed handily, and the coroner will soon be an appointed, rather than an elected, position. So in some ways, the office Temple studied in 1999 and 2000 is already passing away. Which is ironic, since his book offers a spirited defense of the office's controversial suzerain, Cyril Wecht, and of electing coroners.
Actually, it offers more than that. The book's subtitle, Life in a Coroner's Office, might seem like an idle play on words. But Temple shows that studying death tells us a lot about how we live. For example, while tar-stained lungs are usually a sign of smoking, Temple notes, "older Pittsburghers also tend to have black lungs, a remnant of the days when steel mills poured smoke into the air." Temple also describes a peculiar Pittsburgh tradition involving the morgue: Back when corpses were publicly displayed in hopes of identifying "John Does," local teenagers used to stop by and have a look before going to the prom.
A former Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter, Temple has a journalist's eye for detail. He brings a terse, clinical writing style to his descriptions of autopsies and bodies -- even those known as "stinkers." CSI fans will find the gross-out factor here to be low.
They may also say the same of the surprise factor, however. Temple makes much of the irony that, for deadhouse employees, the end of life is just a way to make a living. But it probably won't surprise readers to discover that when "[i]t's your job to hide death from others," you also "get really good at hiding it from yourself."
Temple does impart his share of revelations and anecdotes. For instance, when next-of-kin identify a body, they view it over closed-circuit television, so as not to have a distraught relative clutch the body and taint the evidence. On TV dramas, the tearful mother looks her son in the face as the sheet is pulled back; in the real world, she sees her child only on TV.
The office employees are full of surprises too. We meet Lisa, a photographer who took a job filming autopsies when she got tired of weddings. There's Carey, who can't wait to start handling other people's stomachs, and her fellow intern Tracy, who can barely hold onto her own. We get to know Tiffani, who turns out to be personally (if loosely) connected to the death of a body she handles. And we meet Mike, who, when his own father dies, learns what it's like to be on the other end of the phone calls he makes every day.
Not surprisingly, there's a lot of gallows humor here. Deadhouse never approaches the sublime heights of, say, Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death, but it's amusing enough. I took particularly ghoulish amusement in the story of the decapitated RN -- who is quickly bestowed the title "head nurse."
Wecht himself appears only occasionally, swooping into lab rooms like the celebrity he is. But his presence looms large, and Temple revisits the politics of his job repeatedly:
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Wecht supports the [elected] coroner system because it offers two crucial advantages: independence and legal authority. As an elected, not appointed, office, a coroner's office has the power to make decisions based on science and law, not pressure from other agencies or politicians. ... [T]hat allows him to regularly criticize or even conduct open inquests into controversial deaths, such as those involving police ....
Temple's treatment of such issues is, however, somewhat one-sided. Yes, an appointee might be subject to political pressure from his boss. But if you want to take politics out of things, is running for office the answer? Templeton doesn't consider the question.
Still, Temple notes that in several police-related deaths, Wecht has called for more zealous prosecution of officers. Ensuing squabbles with DA Stephen Zappala ended in a court order limiting Wecht's investigative powers. Wecht's office is also reportedly under federal investigation surrounding a question that Temple benignly doesn't address: Are Wecht or his staff doing freelance work on county time and with taxpayer dollars? All these developments were before the May 17 vote on row-office reform reduced the independence of Wecht's office even more.
Prior to that vote, there was little public discussion about what the reforms could mean for police accountability. If Temple is right, some of us may live to regret not reading Deadhouse earlier.