“Do you want to see the bodies?”
The woman posing the question was Melody Smith, the genial Los Angeles County employee who was our guide for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Department of Medical Examiner–Coroner. Given the setting, it was a perfectly reasonable question. And yet somehow, on my first visit to the storied facility, the possibility of seeing the bodies had never occurred to me.
Maybe I was compartmentalizing, the way we all keep thoughts of death at a distance as we get through the day-to-day business of living. I had assumed that the three of us visiting from the LA County Arts Commission would get to explore just one aspect of the Coroner’s Office: its aesthetics. This includes not just Pentimento, one of the newest additions to the Arts Commission’s civic art collection, but also a number of displays, created by employees from oddities and detritus of the dead, that have been tucked into offices amid the toxicology and electron microscopy laboratories, like miniature cabinets of curiosity.
I would soon discover that, as with Halloween and Día de los Muertos, there’s no clear-cut dividing line between mourning and celebration in these variations on the wonder room. They might not be candidates for inclusion in the County’s permanent collection because they are not artworks, but they’re haunting memorials to the people — the bodies — tended to by the Coroner’s investigators, doctors, evidence processors and volunteers: the residents of Los Angeles County whose deaths are violent, sudden or unusual. In a building holding more than a century’s worth of death records, it’s impossible to look at these assemblages without wondering about the lives they represent.
They include an unsettling assortment of ammunition shells, donated by the Sheriff’s Department crime labs, and carefully arranged exhibits of the drug paraphernalia and other unclaimed possessions of the deceased. There are, most strikingly, beakers and jars painstakingly filled with pills. With their mosaics of multicolored pharmaceuticals, these containers are objects of abstract beauty as well as cautionary clout.
The paradox at the heart of the evocative displays is the morbid yet life-affirming energy that suffuses them. My sense of this deepened with each employee I met as we made our way through the compact Boyle Heights campus. Their exuberant hellos went beyond workaday politeness, and it was clear that they take profound pride in their work, appreciate its weight and importance, and are driven by compassion for the deceased and the bereaved alike.
In the lobby of the department’s only public building, the man who greeted me from the reception desk was exceptionally warm and helpful. I was in something of a swoon over the striking concrete and red brick administrative building. He seemed a bit surprised at first, no doubt used to seeing people in states of distress rather than wonder, but he agreed that it’s a beautiful place. It was designed in 1909 as hospital offices by architects Frank Hudson and William Munsell (who would design the County’s Natural History Museum a few years later), and its style has variously been described as transitional neoclassical, Beaux Art and Austrian/German Secessionist. Stepping outside to wait for my colleagues, I took out my camera to snap a picture of the original entranceway tilework spelling out “County General Hospital.”
Then the front door swung open, two women emerged, and with them a wrenching reminder of the urgency of the department’s work, jolting me out of architectural history appreciation mode. The elder woman clutched a manila envelope. Guided down the steps by the younger woman, she sobbed uncontrollably, the sound rising from the depths of her soul.
That was my first wakeup call. The second was Smith’s straightforward question about the cadavers in the medical annex: Did we want to see them? I was surprised to hear the other members of our three-person Arts Commission contingent say yes without hesitation. But as we moved through the offices and hallways of a building where physicians conduct more than 8,500 autopsies a year, I understood what a rare opportunity this was.
And so, hanging back just a bit, I followed the others into an autopsy room with its scales, sinks and stainless steel instruments — many of them items that resemble ordinary kitchen utensils, as Smith pointed out. A medical examiner about to begin an autopsy paused to greet us, and to enthuse about the work. The dead arrive seven days a week, he said, adding that each case is a different puzzle. “It’s always interesting.”
The case at hand involved, in the physician’s matter-of-fact description, “a 24-year-old male.” It was the kind of phrase I’d heard countless times, in news reports and crime dramas. But here, in the presence of the real deal, I felt an overwhelming sense of reverence. This was no mere factoid to be tossed around. This was a young man whose manner of death required investigation. I wondered who he was, and who he left behind.
Beyond the questions over cause of death that autopsies address, there’s the matter of unidentified bodies, the mournful mysteries surrounding John and Jane Does. That’s where forensic identification specialist Jose J. Hernandez plays a crucial role. His expertise in fingerprints and postmortem dental X-rays is sought after, and he instructs the FBI in the specialized procedures he uses. A 28-year veteran of the Coroner’s Department, he’s clearly a man who loves his job.
“I’m processing the fingers,” Hernandez explained after inviting us into his small office. He switched off the opera that was playing softly and got busy demonstrating his forensic know-how. He removed an amputated digit from the solution in which he’d been rehydrating it, used a special tool to scrape it (the kitchen analogy again came to mind — as in “vegetable peeler”). Finally he injected the finger with a poisonous chemical mixture, making the seemingly destroyed fingerprint once again legible.
From the enclosed, welcoming space of Hernandez’s office, Smith led us to the Medical Building’s cavernous crypt, where bodies are stored before they undergo autopsies. Equipped to hold about 525 corpses, it abuts the loading dock area where the dead arrive and toe tags are created. Just a few steps inside the room’s doorway, the change in atmosphere hit me instantly: the frigid cold and a smell that I’ll never forget. And again, a profound feeling of reverence for the dead — not dread or disgust but a heightened existential awareness.
Having stood in that crypt, if only for a few minutes, I understood something that the artist Vidal Herrera said, in a way that I might never otherwise have comprehended it. Herrera, whose vibrant poster celebrating the surrounding neighborhood is showcased on a wall of the medical annex, is a former investigator for the Coroner who eventually became an independent provider of autopsies. “The deceased,” Herrera has been quoted as saying, “must be protected and given a voice.”
The tour was a brief but indelible demonstration of how the Department of Medical Examiner–Coroner gives the dead a voice. At the same time, it was a potent reminder of life’s fragility, a theme given artistic form in Erin Shie Palmer’s Pentimento, which adorns a wall in the garden area between two of the facility’s buildings. Seven years in the making, the artwork consists of 300 hand-blown glass bells in varying shades of blue. For visitors and employees taking a mind-clearing stroll, Pentimento offers the opportunity for a more focused meditative moment.
The artist drew upon the inspiration of shrines and wishing walls. She chose bells for their central role in many cultures’ rituals, from the joyous to the mournful. Not only do the bells’ hues subtly vary, but each one creates a distinct note when the wind blows. The tranquil sound they make collectively is meant to remind visitors of moving water, a life-giving force with particular resonance in such a setting.
“I seek to heighten awareness of place,” Palmer has written, adding that she aims to make “visible that [which] exists beneath the threshold of the readily apparent.”
But for employees of the department, philosophical insights are never far removed from practical details. As Melody Smith noted with a smile, the white plastic ringers in the bells look like toe tags.
For people who deal with death on a daily basis, gallows humor is to be expected. But the death-themed merchandise at Skeletons in the Closet, where we ended our visit, still took me by surprise. In the old County Hospital building, the small gift shop occupies a corner of the lobby, opposite doors that bear such sobering labels as “Personal Property Release” and “Notification Section.” The macabre mischief of such items as its best-selling beach towels was a welcome tonic after my close encounters with crypts and dismembered body parts.
But rather than undoing the intensity of the experience, the playful merch deepened it, underscoring a vitality and sense of purpose — a powerful regard for life — in a County department whose employees regularly face the desolation and grief of strangers.
By Sheri Linden