The Corpse Patrol

A look inside the thankless job of cleaning up dead bodies

We'll call them Kimiko and Masaharu Shimada. They've been married only a month, but their Post Street apartment already reflects two lives now intertwined. His high-performance computer gear takes up a corner of the small living room, and her drafting table and art supplies occupy another. His two guitars rest in front of a window, and the shelves overflow with computer magazines, books, and Japanese videos.

The kitchen is spotless, as befitting two people who work, and met, at a restaurant. The dishwasher is full. The sink is empty. A pair of teddy bears sit upon a shelf, perhaps at Kimiko's insistence, perhaps by mutual decree. It's only been a month, after all. The compromises still come easy.

Kimiko, a waitress, is working the day shift. Masaharu is floor manager and is supposed to come on at 5. But the owner says he'll be needed earlier this evening, so Kimiko calls home around 2:30 to let him know. The phone rings and rings, which surprises Kimiko because she thought Masaharu would be around that afternoon. When 5 o'clock arrives and he doesn't make it on time for work, she grows worried.

Kimiko gets off at six and returns home not long after. The cat greets her at the door, and seems a little more skittish than usual. "Nani?" Kimiko asks. "Daijobu?"

"Mas?" she calls.
No answer.
"Mas?"

She glances into the kitchen, and then the living room, and then looks in the bedroom. It takes her a moment to understand, to fully grasp what has happened. And then she starts screaming.

Death has a nasty, stomach-clenching smell, the kind that gets into your hair and clothing, and that you keep on smelling for days to come. People who work around dead bodies say you never quite get used to the stench, but that after a while you just stop noticing.

It's 5 p.m., and I'm standing in the operating room with Charles Cecil, an investigator at the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office -- the Coroner's Office, or what would be the coroner's if the city still actually had one. San Francisco officially stopped having a coroner in July when the revised city charter took effect, erasing the position. What San Francisco has instead -- and has had for many years, the old city charter notwithstanding -- is a medical examiner. The difference is that just about anyone can be a coroner, while a medical examiner is a much tougher job to fill. A coroner could be a sheriff or a local undertaker. But a medical examiner has to be a proper M.D., and has to be trained in the dark arts of forensic pathology. San Francisco's medical examiner, Boyd Stephens, has held the title for the past 25 years, and, much to his consternation, has been the subject lately of some pretty unflattering stories in the press. The last thing he wants now, and he makes a point of it, is for people to confuse him with an ordinary, run-of-the-mill coroner.

But, like it or not, to most people Stephens is and will remain the city's coroner, and his office behind the Hall of Justice will always be the Coroner's Office. And as long as San Francisco has dead bodies, it will be assumed there's a coroner on hand to deal with them.

The operating room is where the coroner's doctors take dead people apart to see what killed them. There are five white porcelain operating tables standing in a row, each tipped at an angle so the fluids drain into a basin at the end. A separate operating room is behind a pair of locked double doors. This is where corpses who had AIDS or other potentially hazardous ailments are operated upon. Another door leads to a small space large enough for a single gurney. There's a window there, and family members are brought to the little room on the other side to identify their loved ones. The door between the two spaces is kept locked to avoid unpleasant scenes.

They don't operate at night, only during the day, so it's quiet at this hour. The five white tables sparkle under the bright lights. On one sits a blue helmet with a large face visor, no doubt to protect against splatter. A pair of bodies rest atop gurnies along one wall. They are covered with white sheets, wrapped tight like mummies, except for their left feet, which have red identification tags fastened with plastic straps to the big toes.

I'm keeping a respectful distance as Cecil goes about fingerprinting the body of a man who died at the age of 88. The body was brought in earlier, during what I'm told was an unusually busy day shift, and no one had a chance then to take prints. Cecil, red-bearded and quiet, works quickly and professionally. He does not seem to notice my poorly concealed look of horrified bewilderment.

This is, to put it simply, the first dead body I've ever seen. He was a skinny old guy, with long, gnarly toenails and tufts of dark hair in odd places. He was found dead alone in his apartment. A lot of people die that way: alone, old, quietly. Often nobody knows for days that they're dead. It's the smell that gives them away.

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