Lessons From The Coroner


by, Kenneth C. Anthony, Jr.
Certified Civil trial advocate (December 13, 1999)
The Anthony Law Firm, P.A.
Spartanburg, South Carolina

I recently had what I can only describe as a surreal conversation with our local coroner. Surreal is the only word I can think of to approach the feeling I had while engaged in the telephone conversation with this elected official when the impact of what he had just said sunk in.

I had called his office to discuss a case where an individual had suffered some sort of attack, and then death, while working in the laboratory of a local company. A heart attack had been suspected, but autopsy excluded this conclusion and the widow was suspicious of some sort of chemical inhalation. I wanted the coroner's help to find out.

I had known the local coroner for many years, since before he was coroner, and had supported him in his pursuit of this elected office. The office of coroner is a strange one, a throwback to another era, since pathologists performing autopsies and detectives investigating suspicious deaths now solve questionable cases. The coroner is not required to have any degree of education; it is purely and elected office, and the results are what one might expect. Still, though this particular coroner had produced no spectacular accomplishments, he had also failed to mess anything up too badly.

When I had first called the coroner's office, a day or two after this mysterious death, he had been out of town. Since we were friends, as soon as he called me back on his return, I inquired after his trip, whether it had been business or pleasure, and, if the latter, hoped he'd had a good time. It had been, and he proceeded to tell me about just how wonderful it was.

It seems that the coroner, after many months, even years, of working long hours, weekends and nights with no rest, always on call, always with a beeper, always ready to go when death called one of his constituents, had taken his wife and teenage daughter to a campground at Myrtle Beach for an entire week. He had just bought the camper and they had pulled it down there, set it up, and had a great week.

While I was still thinking, though certainly not expressing, my own thoughts that this sounded like the closest thinking to hell that I could possibly imagine, he went on to explain, even lecture me, on why he had done this.

It seems that what had sparked this sudden mid-life impulse to smell the campground on the part of the coroner of our fair county was the death of race car driver Dale Earnhardt. This well-known driver had died about a month before when involved in a collision on the track which caused his car to run into the wall and in which he was instantly killed. The coroner had, of course, not been involved in this investigation, such as it was, but apparently was a fan or at least follower of Mr. Earnhardt. The fact that this race car driver had had his life cut short in midstream had produced this profound effect on our coroner; it had brought home to him the uncertainty of life, that one might not live forever and have time to smell the sweet aroma of campgrounds when he retired.

It was good that he was going on and on about how wonderful his week had been, how much his family had enjoyed the trip and admonishing me how I should also take time to enjoy life, because I was at an utter loss for words. It had not taken as long to sink in on me, as the death of his hero had taken on the coroner, for me to appreciate that I was talking to the coroner of our county. He had been in that position for seven or eight years. In that time he had investigated and reported many a shooting, stabbing, people who had been dismembered by trains, drowned, killed instantly and horribly on the highways, burned alive. The vast, overwhelming majority of these decedents had been people going about their daily lives, doing nothing out of the ordinary, who had met their tragic demises, instantly, with no warning, when they least expected it, when they had no reason to expect it. Having witnessed such misfortunes on a daily basis happen to people just such as him had had no effect on our coroner whatsoever. It had taken a professional driver, voluntarily engaging in what was known to be a highly dangerous activity, driving a race car at unsafe speeds, watching drivers all around him wreck, be injured and killed, to bring home to our coroner the uncertainty of life.

As I resumed our discussion about the man who had inhaled some vapors at work, walked out of the room, collapsed and died, I told him how glad I was that he had had a good time at the beach.