What Is A Coroner And What Does Their Work Entail?

An interview with Ken Holmes, former Coroner for Marin County, California, Part One

Today SevenPonds speaks with Ken Holmes. Originally from Fresno, CA, Ken began working with the Marin County Coroner’s Office as a death investigator in 1975. He worked there for 36 years, eventually serving as the elected coroner for 12 years. A book about his career and the multitude of cases he worked on, “The Education Of A Coroner,” by John Bateson was published this past August.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lucas Morgan: Hello Ken! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. When did you know you wanted to be involved with this kind of work?

Ken Holmes: Pretty much by the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to be in some form of medicine. When I was young, the human body was fascinating to me. How the brain worked, why we could hear, see, smell and all those things.

As I got closer to college, I realized that twelve years of schooling after high school was not fitting into my life plan. My granddad eventually told me that the coroner’s office did all their autopsies at local mortuaries. And the best way to get to know the human body is at an autopsy or in surgery. So I began looking into the funeral industry, and went that route. I got my first job at a mortuary, and then wanted to transition directly into death investigation.

Portrait of Ken Holmes, former coroner of Marin County

Ken Holmes
Credit: Ken Holmes

Lucas: When was the first time you saw a dead person?

Ken: I saw a dead human for the first time when I was 15. I was with my granddad at a lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and a man who had died sometime earlier was floating on the edges of the lake. We were in a little row boat, and rowed close enough to confirm that it was a human. We then went to find a phone and call the police. Though I wasn’t allowed to get closer than 10 or 15 feet away, I was able to watch the entire process of them bringing him out of the lake.

Lucas: Wow that is quite the story! For those who don’t know, what exactly is a coroner?

Ken: I’m glad you asked that because a lot of people don’t understand it. In the life of a person, there is a birth certificate and a death certificate. The death certificate needs to be certified as to the actual cause of death. If someone is being treated by a physician for something that might end their life and then dies, the physician is required by law to sign the death certificate saying the person died due to the illness they had.

But, there are an awful lot of people who die because of something their physician could never certify. For instance, falling out of a tree, falling off a roof, etc. The law provides that a coroner will look into any sudden or unexpected death. So the coroner’s job serves as an offset to a family physician, if someone should die outside of the presence of a physician. My role was to establish both the cause of death and the manner of death.

Lucas: How long did you work at the Marin County Coroner’s Office?

Ken: Thirty-six-and-a-half years. Nine of those as a death investigator, 14 years in a sort of mid-management role, and the last 12 years as the elected coroner. Coroners were elected to four-year terms. When I retired, however, the board of supervisors combined the coroner’s office with the sheriff’s office. Most counties in California operate this way, where the sheriff also acts as the coroner.

Lucas: How would you learn of a death when you were working? Who would notify you?

Ken: There were two typical routes. First, either a hospital or some sort of institution would call us to say that someone had passed away. And there are criteria for the different agencies to report deaths to the coroner. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be an autopsy, but they are required to report the death.

The other most likely way was if a fire department or paramedics were called to the scene of a death. Once they determined there was a death, they would notify our office directly through their dispatch. So, for example, we would hear from the San Rafael Fire Department dispatch or the Novato Police dispatch.

Woman working a police department dispatch system

Holmes and his team would sometimes learn of a death from a police dispatch system. Credit: nwherald.com

Lucas: What is the difference, if any, between a coroner and a medical examiner?

Ken: It’s only a political difference. Generally, a medical examiner is a political appointment, whereas a coroner will be elected by the populace. Medical examiners may be required to have some kind of medical training, such as in forensic pathology. Typically there is no such requirement for coroners. The function, however, is the same: to establish the cause and manner of death. And if it’s an unidentified person, they must establish identification and locate and notify next of kin.

Lucas: What was the first case you worked on?

Ken: Well the first case I worked on, I was on duty but was working under my trainer, who was the Assistant Coroner at the time. It was a suicide, but I honestly don’t remember anything about it. The first night on duty by myself, however, I got a call only 12 minutes into my first hour about a rape/murder victim in Novato.

There was a young girl who had been kidnapped a couple of weeks before. Long story short, the perpetrator hid her body in an aluminum storage shed next to his house and covered her with blankets and carpet. He eventually fled to Washington state where he was caught.

Lucas: How many people were on your investigative team at any given time?

Ken: We had seven permanent staff members: The Coroner, the Assistant Coroner, two office staff and three death investigators. In Marin, we had three death investigators from the time I was hired until the day I retired. We never increased our staff, and I was very proud of that.

It would then vary throughout the course of the work we did. For instance, we sometimes  hired forensic pathologists, forensic dentists, forensic anthropologists, entomologists, forensic X-ray people, etc. But we would only pay them when we used them.

Lucas: I’m sure it varied greatly, but on average how many cases would come to your office in one day? Throughout one year?

Ken: In Marin County, in the course of a single year, there are about 1,800 total deaths. Of those, around 900 or so would be reported to our office. So that comes out to about three a day, if they are reported to us. Out of that 900, we typically did autopsies, which to us is a full investigation, on about 350 a year. Those full investigations involved all of the background, the medical records, interviewing people, etc. and the autopsy itself.

For a long time, I actually held the record for most cases initiated in one day. We worked 24-hour shifts, by the way. One day during my second or third year, I had 10 separate cases that came in. That record was broken years later, but at the time it was by far the highest number. You know, sometimes you’d have a car accident with like five people, but we would consider that one case. To have ten separate reports in one day was really out of the ordinary.

Check back next week for part two of our interview with Ken Holmes, when we continue to discuss the work of a coroner.

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Book Review: “I Miss You” by Pat Thomas

Easy-to-understand information about death for children

“I Miss You: A First Look at Death” is a non-fiction book for children around the ages of four to seven. It uses simple language and metaphors to discuss death and what happens after a person dies. It is part of the “A First Look at…”, a series published by Barron’s Educational Series that explains complex subjects like adoption or divorce.

"I Miss You" by Pat Thomas

The text of “I Miss You,” written by Pat Thomas, is gentle but straightforward. She clearly explains concepts such as the death of the body, for example, in this passage:

“When someone dies, their body stops working – they stop breathing and their heart stops beating. They can’t think or feel anymore. They don’t eat or sleep.”

Thomas goes on to talk about the different causes of death, such as old age, prolonged illness, fast-acting illness and injury. She also talks about rituals like funerals that may occur after death and what may happen to us, or our souls, after our bodies die. She is careful to explain that all cultures have their own beliefs and that no one knows for sure what happens after death.

Every few pages in “I Miss You” a question for the child appears in a red box. For instance, one question asks, “Has anyone you know died? How did they die?” If you’re reading this to a child, stop and talk about them. Not only will this keep the child interested in the reading material, it may also give you valuable information. Your child may know more about death than you realize, or you may find out that your child has some harmful misconceptions. If your child answers the question, “Grandma died because I got mad at her,” for example, you will know it’s time to explain that being angry at someone doesn’t cause them to die.

The illustrations by Lesley Harker mainly feature a Caucasian female, but secondary characters are people of many different races, cultures and religions. The pictures are done mostly in pastels, and none of the images are frightening or disturbing. However, the picture of the little girl finding a dead bird or looking at her grandmother’s empty chair may make some children feel sad.

Bringing flowers to a funeral shows respect for the dead and says "I Miss You"

Credit: lifeinastateofwanderlust.wordpress.com

At the end of the book, the author has listed additional resources for both parents and children.

Death is a difficult subject for adults to discuss with each other. Look at how many grown-ups put off completing living wills or health care powers of attorney. Talking to a young child about death may feel practically impossible, but it is important to do so. Otherwise, your child may learn from rumors and gossip or may make up their own ideas. Books like “I Miss You” help you start and continue those hard conversations.

“I Miss You” is short and doesn’t have too many words per page. Because there is no story line to follow, your child may get bored with it fairly quickly. If that happens, try reading just two or three pages per day. This will allow your child to think over what you have read and come back to you with questions and opinions.

If you’re looking for a way to introduce your child to the concept of death, “I Miss You” is a good way to start.

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Song About Loss: “Ordinary World,” by Duran Duran

Duran Duran's hit single details the intricate grieving process

Duran Duran’s 1993 single “Ordinary World” is an homage to loved ones who have died. The song serves as a remembrance of foregone times, and details the occasional yearning for those times that everyone experiences when dealing with the death of a loved one.

Portrait of British band Duran Duran who sing "Ordinary World" wearing suits

Duran Duran
Credit: grantland.com

The lyrics start after a mystifying, almost dream-like instrumental. A soothing guitar riff leads into the opening lines:

Came in from a rainy Thursday on the avenue

Thought I heard you talking softly

I turned on the lights, the TV and the radio

Still, I can’t escape the ghost of you

The singer, Simon Le Bon, here is experiencing a common phenomenon. He thinks he has heard the voice of his loved one who has died. He does a double-take around the room and checks the TV and the radio to make sure he is alone.

It may seem crazy to think that a loved one who has died is still around us. However, this is quite a normal occurrence. To sense the presence of someone who has died is often part of the normal grieving process.

The singer tries to make sense of what has happened. He attempts to think of other things. But the death of his loved one continues to plague him.

Le Bon continues to try and normalize his reactions. He wants to make sense of the whirlwind that has engulfed him, and tries to face this world-changing event head-on. The chorus continues:

But I won’t cry for yesterday, there’s an ordinary world

Somehow I have to find

And, as I try to make my way to the ordinary world

I will learn to survive

There is no question that learning to accept your loved one’s death is a delicate and intricate process. Everyone doesn’t grieve in the same way. There is no cut-and-dried, easily followed route to follow when it comes to handling the loss. And although most people are well-intentioned, those who offer advice to someone grieving the death of someone they love rarely know how to help. It’s a personal process, and “Ordinary World” points out that idea.

Woman sitting on a beach looking at the sand symbolizing griefLe Bon continues mellifluously onto the next stanza:

What is happening to me?

Crazy, some’d say

Where is my friend when I need you most?

Gone away

Here he describes something that many grieving people know well: the belief that they must be going crazy. The wide range of emotions experienced after loss can feel like a wild roller coaster ride. And sometimes the person who has always helped you through the rough times may be the person who has died.

“Ordinary World” intimately details the experience of loss. The song seeks to make sense of losing someone dear to you. It’s difficult to continue the ordinary way of life after profound loss, to be sure. Every person deals with it differently.

Death is a part of life, as we all know. Despite this, it’s still difficult to wrap our heads around it. Sometimes music can aid in our healing, by sharing what others have experienced in similar situations.

If you are dealing with the death of a loved one, “Ordinary World” will likely strike a chord with you. You can find the rest of the lyrics here. Below is a live version of the song performed by Duran Duran.

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A Father Sends Birthday Gifts from the Grave

Knowing he was dying, a Tennessee dad arranged special gifts for his teenage daughter

I have written many times about the importance of making memories with our loved ones before we die. Leaving the people who love us and will miss us with something wonderful to hold on to is an act of generosity and gratitude that lives on long after we are gone.

Bailey Sellers and her dad next to a photo of his final birthday gift card


Then, today I read a story about a father in Tennessee who took this act of kindness one step further. Knowing he was dying of pancreatic cancer, Mike Sellers arranged for a florist to deliver flowers and a card to his daughter on her 17th birthday, which came one month after he died in 2013. The gifts arrived on Bailey Sellers’ birthday every year for the next four years. The last, accompanied by a handwritten message telling her that she would not hear from her dad “until we meet again,” arrived shortly before Thanksgiving this year, on the day she turned 21.

In his final letter, Mike assured his daughter that he was “in a better place.” This was especially important to Bailey since she had been her father’s caretaker in the months before he died. Because her mother had to work to support the family, she dropped out of high school and opted for home schooling for the remainder of her senior year. “I spent every waking second with him,”  she said in an interview with CNN affiliate WATE.

A Tweet Goes Viral

Bailey Sellers was so overwhelmed by her father’s final message that she took to Twitter to tell the world about his gift. She tweeted an image of the card and flowers, along with an old photo of her and her dad when she was a young girl. She signed it “Miss you so much, daddy” and added a tiny purple heart.

The tweet went viral, and Bailey had soon received thousands of messages from others who had also lost a parent, sharing how the loss affected them and how they had grieved.

Bailey's flowers, her final birthday gift from dad

Bailey’s flowers, a final gift from her dad
Credit: twitter.com

Sellers is very able to relate to their pain, she says. She, too, became depressed after the death of her father, which hit her “very, very hard.” But now she wants to take that experience and use it to help others. So she’s studying psychology at East Tennessee State University with the goal of earning a graduate degree. She hopes one day to be able to work with young people like herself to help them navigate the difficult process of mourning the death of someone they love.

Bailey is proud of her accomplishments, and she’s also proud of her father. Speaking to WATE, she said, “He would be so proud that he did this. He made people happy. He made people realize that they shouldn’t … take the people they care about for granted.”

And how very true that is! Especially at this time of year, Bailey’s words should serve as an important reminder to us all that tomorrow is never a certainty. So the time to express your love to the important people in your life is now.

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“The be-all and end-all of life should not be to get rich, but to enrich the world.”

- B.C. Forbes

Human hands cupping a sapling and dirt symbolizing nourishment and enrichment

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“At the Gate” by Henrik Nordbrandt

The sudden death of a loved one makes the poet reflect

Dying takes place in so many different ways. Some people, for instance, die slowly as the result of a terminal illness or a condition like heart disease. Others die swiftly, victims of an accident or a fast-acting illness. It is impossible to say which kind of death is harder to mourn. The poet Henrik Nordbrandt wrote “At the Gate” after his girlfriend suffered a swift death.

Nordbrandt was born in Denmark but spent most of his adult life in the Mediterranean. He currently resides in Spain. He has written novels, essays and over 20 collections of poetry. Nordbrandt has won every literary award offered in Denmark.

Certain themes, such as travel, show up in much of his work. He also writes about gates as transition markers.

His poem “At the Gate” is written in seven terse stanzas. It begins:

An old gate like the gate in the poem "At the Gate"

Credit: pinterest

“In the dream

At the gate to your grave

You stopped me

With the same words

I had spoken in a dream

Where I died before you.”

Nordbrandt’s pain is so deep that when he reaches the gate to the cemetery, he finds himself wishing that he had been the one to die first.

In the second stanza, he goes on to describe the gates as having “rusty and squeaky hinges.” He also talks about how the weather is gloomy and cloudy.

The third stanza of  Norbrandt’s poem laments his lover’s ashes contained in an urn. Then in the fourth stanza, he reverts back to a travel metaphor:

“On every trip you stay ahead of me.

On platforms I see your footprints in fresh snow.

When the train starts to move

You jump out of the back carriage

To reach the next station ahead of me.”

In this stanza of “At the Gate,” Nordbrandt’s sweetheart appears almost malicious in her haunting of him, leaving her faint presence behind only to disappear when he thinks he might reach her. The stanza also refers to the fact that, because Nordbrandt’s lover died first, he will never see her again.

The sixth stanza is a short summary of the last telephone call the couple had. His final words to her, when she told him she missed him, were, “I miss you too.”

The seventh and final stanza wraps up the different threads of the poem:

“You are gone.

Three words. And not one

Of them

Exists in any

Other context.”

Prolific author Henrik Nordbrandt

Credit: liosite.com

“At the Gate” is a poignant look at the reactions of the poet to losing a loved one to a swift death. It starts desperately with Nordbrandt yearning for his own death, wishing he could have died first. The middle passages provide descriptions of his lover and show the way that he thinks about her and honors her memory. Finally, he reacts to the harsh and lonely reality: “You are gone.”

Since writing “At the Gate,” Henrik Nordbrandt has gone on to write dozens if not hundreds more poems. Most of them have been translated into English by a man named Thom Satterlee. I believe, though, that “At the Gate” will always be my favorite Nordbrandt poem. It takes an unflinching, yet metaphorical, look at losing a loved one suddenly and cruelly.

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