A Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Job, PART 2: If The Dead Could Speak, They’d Say “F^<K YOU!"- So I'll Just Say It For Them

Death is cool.  I get it.

When I first started as a medicolegal death investigator, I was giddy with amazement at everything I was suddenly seeing and doing. It’s normal to catch a couple Gs when you first enter the world of law enforcement, forensics, pathology etc.  One minute you’re watching it on television, the next you’re crossing the crime scene tape and you’re inside the scene. It’s fucking wild. How did this happen? I remember the first time a police officer said to me, “Well, what do you want us to do? It’s YOUR scene,” I was terrified and elated.  I was the real deal! I was in charge!  I had the lead in the school play! I was sitting with the cool kids at lunch!  I had the inside track on everything and I couldn’t WAIT to tell everyone every last detail so they’d all know how awesome I was.

You guys wanna hear about my latest decapitation?”

Of course, that’s exactly the problem. I wasn’t awesome. I was an asshole who thought she was awesome. I was working an internship at a medical examiner’s office. I was high on my own, newfound knowledge and I was keeping a blog that was WAY more inappropriate than this one- a blog that was found by my internship preceptors and almost cost me my career before it even started. I hadn’t learned yet.

“Learned what,”  You ask?

Learned that people are awful. I’m frequently awful. The world is a trash-fire and there are certain things you


…Like divulge details regarding people’s identities and deaths. Sure, I tell you a lot in this blog, but I certainly don’t tell you everything.  And the stories I DO tell you are mostly true. But some aspects have been shifted around just enough so my dead folks are safe and my identity and location aren’t obvious.

Oh, wait… you thought “Grace Baudino” was my real name? That’s adorable.

And I think, therein lies the crux of the matter.  You’ll notice I referred to them as “my dead folks.”  They are. They’re mine. Their stories are in my hands.  It’s up to me to see that their truth is told. I know these people. I know them more than their own families sometimes, more than the pathologist who will literally pry their brains out of their skulls.

I hold their faces in my hands and look in their eyes. I stick my fingers in their mouths. I squeeze their chests, feel their bones and run my hands over stretch marks and fat rolls that they’re too ashamed to show anybody. I pull their clothes off and document their pubic hair and nail polish. I rifle through pockets and cell phones, reading their text messages and suicide notes. I root through their bed-side tables and refrigerators. I find their drugs, their guns, their porn, their bottle of vodka they stowed under the bathroom sink.

I find hidden cigarettes when they told everyone they quit. I find positive pregnancy tests buried in bathroom wastebaskets. I even water their plants sometimes.  I’ll feed their fish and make sure animal services is coming to pick up their cat.  I’ve cried over some dead people because I was so heartbroken I would never get to meet them. I’ve hated others. But they’re all mine and I’m NOT SHARING THEM.

That sounds weird, let me backtrack.

At the beginning a death-investigator career, the dead are just a means to an end… an opportunity to have a new, cool story to tell. The weirder, the better.  Each case is nothing more than another stage, upon which to prove yourself. It’s fun, exciting and very SENSATIONAL in the truest sense of the word. But around year 7 or so, the varnish has all worn off your glamorous job and you really start seeing the deaths… like… you’re not just recording them anymore. By the time you’re broken in a bit, you don’t have the same frantic focus that you had as a rookie. Once you stop worrying as much about what you’re going to miss or screw up, it frees up bandwidth for you to really start seeing your decedents. They’re suddenly people again. At least, that’s how it went for me.

Of course, the problem is, you realize other people are “seeing” them too… and not in a good way. I feel about my dead people the way folks feel about their siblings.  I might get angry at how inconvenient they are. I might make fun of their home décor. I might roll my eyes with exhaustion and disdain and make snide remarks to the cops… but I’ll be damnned if I’m gonna let someone else do it. Furthermore, I’ll be damnned if I’m going to tolerate people treating a death scene like it’s a live-action episode of CSI.  If you want to see a show, go flip on Investigation Discovery. This isn’t the Roman Coliseum in 100 A.D.  People aren’t dying for your entertainment.

But we’ve lost track of that somehow.  We’ve all been given some weird entitlement serum and believe we have a right to witness complete strangers’ most intimate, traumatic and painful moments. Real life is nothing more than hi-def reality television… and it’s grotesque. To me, asshole spectators staring at a mess of blood and carnage is even worse than people thinking they have the right to see other people naked.  The entire nation has turned into a carload of drunken douchebags, yelling “show us your tits!” at every woman they pass on the highway.  Except they’re yelling, “SHOW US YOUR GUTS!” and they’re not even going to toss you a shitty string of Mardi Gras beads.  They’ll just yell, “The public has a right to know!” and mother-fuck you on social media if you suggest they’re in the wrong.

On the one hand, I get it.  People are curious and sheltered. I’m not sure about other societies, but in America, we’re cloistered from the reality of death. Death only happens in TV shows and movies, usually to a minor character and usually just to further an inane plot-line. But when death happens right in front of our faces, we’re frozen with disbelief and fascination. What are we looking at?  A summer camp of slaughtered teenagers on a screen is completely different from the caught-breath sucker-punch of seeing an actual person, stripped of their soul. Sometimes, I can practically hear the crackling buzz of peoples’ brains short-circuiting as they attempt to comprehend the fact that a death has occurred so close to them.  I imagine it feels a lot like standing right next to someone who just got struck by lightning. How did this happen?  How did it come so close? Why them and not me?

But shock and awe will only excuse so much gawking.

I remember the first time I really got pissed at a bystander. It was a complicated scene.  A couple had been found deceased in their home, a man and a woman. They were in their mid-50’s, living in the middle-class suburbs: as nondescript as a pair of paperclips living in an accountant’s office. But then they died, and their mauve little cul de sac turned into a glittering circus of red and blue lights.  I had just arrived on the scene and the typical collection of neighborhood busy-bodies were all gathering in the street along with the police cars and a couple of news crews who had decided to make a day of it.  I watched as one desperate housewife approached the crowd, asking what was happening.

“John and Sonia are dead,” came the answer.


No one had yet said anything about this scene being a homicide/suicide. At least not officially.  As investigators, the possibility of a homicide/suicide was on our radar.  But we knew better than to say so out loud. Of course, this woman didn’t give a shit about any investigation unless it involved the news crews gathering around to investigate HER… because that’s exactly what happened. Microphones were shoved into her face and reporters drilled her with leading questions about the deceased couple. Beaming with the attention, her performance amplified to Oscar-worthy proportions as she lamented the murder/suicide that had just taken place. What a shame it was! It’s never who you expect! She howled and wept and the cameras ate it up… putting it all on the evening news for the consumption of the general public.

Thing is… it wasn’t a murder/suicide.

Autopsies later confirmed that the woman had died of a stroke. And the man… shattered with grief… had opted to kill himself, rather than live without his wife. Post mortem changes confirmed he had died of asphyxiation approximately a day after her passing.  Of course, it took a couple of days to thread through the whole, tangled story.  But the media didn’t want to wait a couple of days. They wanted to run the story now.  “HOMICIDE/SUICIDE IN SLEEPY SUBURBAN NEIGHBORHOOD!” screamed the headline. And there, on the front page of the newspaper was the “grieving community”… a.k.a. a bunch of dick-bag Karens, carrying on for the cameras.

When the truth came out, the media didn’t bother to follow up or issue a retraction. Subsequently, I was the one who got stuck on the phone with the couple’s son when he called and asked why the world had been told that his father had killed his mom and then himself. I refrained from telling him it was because some deplorable lookie-loo decided to make his parents’ deaths a springboard for her attention-seeking bullshit. I still gave a shit about professionalism and decorum back then. These days I wouldn’t hold back.

I used to try to take it in stride- the staring, the questions and the performative nature of people’s interest.  It’s normal, I suppose. But then I saw a guy lift his child on to his shoulders so that child could get a better view of a suicide victim who had jumped off the 5th floor of a parking garage. Things changed for me. That’s when I started stepping in. I could forgive curiosity. But, I could no longer abide people treating someone’s death as a side-show, or an opportunity… or an amusement.

I began giving lookie-loos the stink-eye when I marched on to a scene, making sure they saw the words: “MEDICAL EXAMINER” printed in big, block letters across my back as I passed them. I willed for my contempt to simply ooze off me with every step. That’s right!  I thought as I passed them. I’m in charge here and I DISAPPROVE of you! But soon I realized no one noticed or cared.

So, I began grumbling insults under my breath… which was a bit more satisfying but still didn’t really scratch the insistent itch of my ire.  In the last year, I’ve begun staring bystanders in the eye and barking, “CAN I HELP YOU?” I’m attempting to draw attention to the fact that they don’t actually have any reason to be standing there watching me pull a crushed body out of a demolished car.

Every time I start shouting at bystanders, the cops titter and exchange nervous glances. It’s like they sense what’s coming, the way animals can feel a tornado coming from miles away. Believe it or not, the cops are better-behaved than I and are far more concerned with upsetting the public than I have ever been.  With the advent of Black Lives Matter, the police in my area don’t attempt to block the public’s view of anything.  It makes sense, I guess. They don’t want to give the impression that they’re hiding their alleged nefarious deeds.

Subsequently, the cops have viewed my devolution into a snarky, confrontational monster with a mixture of delight and terror.  I’ve actually started saying things to people that they only think. And even as they snigger behind their hands, they wonder if my antics are going to get all of us fired.

All I can say is: Not yet.

I’m getting closer though. Recently, I had another “jumper.”  An elderly man who was beginning to lose himself to Alzheimer’s opted to walk off the roof of his 6-floor retirement home rather than inflict his dementia on his family.  I find these situations unbearably tragic. I believe our ancestors deserve better than to think self-destruction is their only option once they’ve outlived their earning potential. But this situation was made much worse by the gossiping old biddies who insisted on poking their graying heads out of their windows so they could observe me performing an external exam on the body. Normally, I would have just loaded up the decedent and taken him to a funeral home so I could assess him, but no one witnessed his terminal events and he had been found deceased in the parking lot.  There was some confusion as to whether or not he actually jumped, or if he had been hit by a car as he was walking across the pavement. And since it was a possible hit-and-run, the scene had to remain untainted until I made my assessment.

It was maddening.  I would bend down to palpate the decedent’s head or chest, to turn him over or take pictures of another injury and down came a sinister shower of whispers sprinkling down on me from above.  I would look up to see shades pulled aside or blinds split apart as the community reveled in the latest happening.  I was grinding my teeth to nubs and bristling under the stares until finally I just began shouting up at the windows. “THIS MAN DID NOT DIE FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT! SHUT YOUR SHADES AND STOP STARING!”

I also considered telling them that if they didn’t knock off the gaping I was going to come up there and throw them off the roof as well… but that would have been too far.  As it was, I had a sheriff’s deputy recruit helping me with that scene, and he looked a little worried as I shrieked my displeasure up at the neighbors.  Usually, the law enforcement field instructors like having me on death scenes because I’ll happily babble-on at length regarding death investigations.  This time however, I recall hearing the recruit ask his field instructor if we were really allowed to yell at people like that.  The field instructor said “no.”

That’s not the worst of it though.  The dam really broke a couple of months ago on the scene of an overdose.

I know it doesn’t sound like much of a spectacle.  It certainly didn’t attract as much attention as a 4-car pile-up or a double homicide.  It wasn’t so much that a hoard of lookie-loos gathered around like the witnesses at Christ’s crucifixion. But the situation… this single PERSON… finished me. My public exterior collapsed like a theatrical backdrop, revealing the rusty, crippled machinery that had kept the show running for over a decade.

It was cold, VERY cold. That was part of the problem.  It was also late. At my office we work 48 hour shifts- 8am to 8am two days later.  This was the second evening of my shift and I had been at home getting ready for bed when this call rolled in.  Some guy had been found deceased in the laundry room of an apartment complex.  The death was almost definitely an accidental overdose and it meant a mandatory scene investigation. My abdomen locked up in a painful spasm as dispatch relayed these details. I was tired. I had already been on several death scenes that day and I was not thrilled to add yet another laborious case file to an already monstrous load of paperwork. I ground my teeth with anxiety as I pulled off my freshly-donned pajamas and put my practical business casual back on. Stepping outside, I noted my breath hung in the chilled air as I shuffled to the county truck. I climbed into the driver’s seat and sat there, gripping the steering wheel for a moment, checking the clock to calculate the likely number of hours before I’d be home in my pajamas again… then how many hours of sleep I might still get, provided nothing else happened tonight.

“Fuck.” I murmured.

I heaved the truck into drive and rattled off to a multi-building apartment complex across town.

There was quite the show going on even as I arrived.  I pulled in and positioned the truck close to the death scene which had been surrounded by police tape. But a few yards away from this area, the investigating officers were engaged in a one sided battle royale with some crazy woman. She was wearing ratty pajamas and a pair of flip-flops.  Her hair was twisted into a makeshift bun that erupted haphazard tendrils of hair like an exploding firework.  She was screaming obscenities at the police and stomping around in a fury.  The police, to their credit, looked too exhausted to really get excited about her display.  The officers stood, casually observing the tirade and backing up a step or two whenever the woman’s orbit circled a little too close. One of the officers said something to her and this was apparently the last straw, because she yelled one last expletive and scurried off towards the street. For a split second, I was afraid she was charging into traffic.  But she course-corrected and veered back onto the sidewalk and disappearing into the night.

“What the hell was all that about,” I asked when the cops spotted me and approached to brief me on our situation.

“That’s our dead-guy’s girlfriend.  She lives in the apartment complex down the street.  I guess he was there and the two of them had some kind of fight.  He left and took all their drugs with him.  About a half hour later, someone in this complex comes down to the laundry room to get their clothes and finds our guy, unconscious on the floor, surrounded by scorched aluminum foil and other shit. She’s pissed because we wouldn’t give her the dead guy’s phone.”

-Which made sense.  In cases like this, the phone is often the “smoking gun” and the drug investigation taskforce (DIT) can use it to figure out where and how to contact dealers. Either the girlfriend didn’t want the dealer to get caught, or she didn’t want to lose her only means of contacting the dealer now that her boyfriend was dead. Maybe both.

“So, our guy doesn’t live here? How did he get into the laundry room?”

The officer giving the information, Brandon Ryans, motioned to three young men, who stood at the stairwell of a nearby building.  “They live here. They say the lock has been broken for months. Anybody can get in.”  The three guys were trying to appear nonchalant, shuffling their feet and smoking. But they were watching the evening’s happening with rapt attention… like they couldn’t quite believe they were actually inside the crime scene tape.

“Are we done with them,” I asked Brandon.

“Them? Yeah, we told them they could go a while back.”

“Then why are they still standing there?” I snarked back at Brandon, probably too sharply. It wasn’t his fault these dudes were lingering.  The cops have been heavily trained for the last couple of years NOT to tell people to fuck off.

I marched towards the civilians, with long, firm strides.  “Hey guys, are you part of this?” I was being polite, but definitely using a tone that a typical, male ego would call aggressive.  They looked at me and looked away, rattled that I had addressed them while everyone else had just been content to let them lurk.

“No,” one of them mumbled. “We’re just smoking.”

“Come on you guys…” I said in a conciliatory but final tone. “Go on and get out of here. This guy didn’t die for your entertainment.”

They bristled and exchanged looks, each of them wondering if the other was going to try and challenge me. After a beat, the speaker flicked out his cigarette and ambled away, making sure to amble off with a pouty: “Well, it wasn’t really all that entertaining…” He said this with a wounded air- as though he had bought a ticket to these amusements and felt that he’d overpaid.

“Worst death scene… EVER!”

I rolled my eyes and shivered in the sub-zero air.  As I walked to the landry room, I saw that the apartment complex was arranged with all of these buildings were facing inward toward the parking lot in a sort of courtyard configuration.  I saw curious residents all gathered at their windows, taking in the scene.

“Fuck.” I said again.  There was no way to shield the goings-on from public view. I was going to have to work with an audience. I greeted the DIT guys as I approached the laundry room, seeing with dismay that this laundry room opened directly to the outside and it was the size of a small walk-in closet.  The decedent had been dragged out by paramedics and now lay on the sidewalk under a couple of blankets… essentially on display for the whole world to see.

I jammed into the laundry room with the DIT guys and they showed me the paraphernalia. I took my pictures and gave them a ration of shit for hiding from the crazy woman confrontation outside- and they admitted it was one-hundred-percent true. When she had bulldozed her way on scene, they all scrambled into the laundry room to let the patrol guys sort it out.

I stepped back outside to perform a brief external exam on the dead guy- just enough to verify there wasn’t any obvious trauma or foul play. I felt the burning weight of hundreds of eyes on my back as I did this.  My muscles tightened even more and I tried to keep the body as covered as I could.  But it was impossible. I was going to load him into my truck and take him to the closest funeral home where I could do a proper external exam, but all of this would be tricky.  He was a massive human, easily 300+ pounds.  He was laying on the ground which meant we would have to lift him up and then parade him through this coliseum of on-lookers who were undoubtedly filming this whole fiasco with their bedazzled phones.

And FUCK it was COLD.

“Ok guys,” I addressed the officers. “I’m gonna need your help loading this guy.  I have to take him to a funeral home to get a good look at him.” The officers’ shoulders sagged at the announcement, but no one refused to help or walked away. (Except the DIT guys who were suddenly SUPER busy with the decedent’s phone).  I pulled my stretcher from the back of the truck, grabbed a body bag, breathed heavily on my hands to warm them and went to work.  It took four of us to muscle the dead guy on to the stretcher, all of us straining and huffing.  But we did it while keeping him mostly covered, which was a miracle. I was just coaching the police on lifting our dinosaur of a stretcher and wheeling it back to my truck when I heard the voice.


I whirled around, certain the crazy girlfriend had returned, maybe with a knife this time.

But it was a different woman. A mid-to-late thirties, portly, white woman who wore a velour tracksuit with “JUICY” printed across the ass in big, shiny letters.  She was clutching a convenience store bag and also had the exploding clutch of brown hair perched atop her head in a bun. She looked all of us in the eye with an expectant blink.  Not concern, definitely not alarm.

My eyes narrowed even as Brandon threw himself at her like he was shielding someone from a grenade.  But who was the grenade- her or me? Brandon and I have often worked together over the years. My husband and I have even gone out drinking with him.  Brandon has seen me go from fresh-faced newbie to embittered veteran and while he may have enjoyed watching the progression, he also knows I’m becoming a bit like aging dynamite. Anything might set me off.

“Hey…” He called nervously. “There’s nothing going on, it’s not a problem. Just a police matter ma’am, thank you!”

She would not be dissuaded.

“DID SOMEONE DIE!?” She demanded as she craned her neck to see around me and catch a glimpse of the dead man on the stretcher who, thankfully, was covered with sheets.

My back was to the woman as I had been guiding the stretcher off the curb and into the parking lot to load it into my truck.  Brandon was at the head of the stretcher and had an unobscured view of both my face and the caterwauling woman behind me. I can only assume that my expression looked like a gathering storm cloud. And Brandon was the wild animal who could sense the tornado coming.  He tried again, sounding a little bit more manic this time.

“Ma’am, there’s nothing to be concerned about. There’s no risk to the public. I promise you, nothing going on here concerns you.”

He gestured to me to go ahead and maneuver the stretcher forward, off the curb, past the woman and safely into my truck, away from probing eyes. I followed his direction, resolving to ignore her and just get the hell out of there.  I could barely feel my feet, I was hungry and even after I left the scene, there was still so much work to do.


She rattled off a couple more typical phrases, in particular a bunch of bullshit about her “rights” and how they applied in this situation.  She even went so far as to begin following us toward the truck as we tried to navigate past her and load up our decedent.

Something snapped.

I couldn’t say what. The evenings’ frustrations coalesced into a single, ferocious lightning strike in my head and the thunderclap was about to follow.

“That DOES IT!” I growled under my breath as I turned, letting go of the stretcher and stomping toward the woman who still stood there, clutching her phone, her cigarettes and her completely baseless sense of entitlement.

“nonononoNoNoNONONO!” Brandon reached out to grab me but had to grab a hold of the stretcher to keep it from rolling away… seeing as how I had just released it and was bearing down on the woman who blinked at me expectantly. “GRACE, it’s NOT WORTH IT!”

I ignored him. After almost 12 years of obnoxious observers, I was going for it. I was done with being the bigger person, I was done with professionalism. I was loaded for bear and I was aiming to give her both barrels.

“Ma’am,” I hissed at her as I pulled up to her. (“Ma’am” because I was going to rip her a new one but I was going to do it politely?) “I want you to take off all your clothes, right now.”

She gasped and stared at me for a second, like she couldn’t quite believe I had just said that.

“I… beg your pardon…”


“How… dare… you…?” she huffed in astomishment.


She stared at me for a moment, her confusion and shock slowly evaporating under my heated point. Her face shifted from blank to furious.


I whirled away from her and grabbed the stretcher, pushing it forward as I caught a glance at Brandon’s face.  His expression was a mixture of dread and amusement. He followed my lead and guided the stretcher to the back of my truck and helped me load our decedent as the woman’s screaming tirade continued… Variations on the theme: Whatever was happening, she had a right to know.

“You don’t have a right to shit,” Brandon called to her. I suspect he felt obligated to back my play, even as he was cringing at it.  She was still raining down a hail of profanity as I pulled out of the parking lot and drove away, leaving Brandon and the other officers to deal with the bomb I had just detonated behind me. I grit my teeth down to nubs as her caterwauling faded.

I’m not sure what I had hoped to achieve in that situation, but it didn’t happen.  Looking back, I guess I wanted her to consider her actions and recognize that she was in the wrong.  I wanted her to understand that human devastation isn’t a show to save her from her uneventful evening. This was a real person who was really dead… not some one-dimensional character on a shitty program.  He had real friends and family who would be really heartbroken over this.  And none of it was her fucking business.  Someone just lost their turn on planet earth, and whether or not he’ll ever get another one is up for debate.

But none of that mattered to her, just like it doesn’t matter to so many other people whose lives are ruled by the principle of: “I DO WHAT I WANT.”  And when we, as emergency workers, first responders and the undisputed janitors of the human race respond with: “Yes, but do you really want to be an asshole?” I’m always astonished at how often that question is answered with an unequivocal and resounding, “YES!”

I was disappointed as I left that scene.  I had always imagined that finally letting loose on a lookie-loo troll like that would feel good.  But it was a hollow victory.  She hadn’t learned or realized anything, just flipped out and I probably should have guessed it would go that way.  What’s more, I was not super proud of the fact that I had lost a hold of my faculties so much that I had actually engaged with a gawker.  Lastly, I felt guilty because I put the cops at risk.  Oh sure, my actions are my own and I don’t even work for the sheriff’s department.  But “juicy-ass scene-goblin” wouldn’t see it that way.  It was possible, likely even, that she would call in a complaint to the “Police Community Standards” hotline and regale them with a story about how a police officer ordered her to strip. I hadn’t been wearing my uniform coat and was dressed all in black, but I was there with the cops. She wouldn’t bother to make any distinction.

“Fuck.” I said under my breath as I pulled up to the funeral home. I dialed Brandon’s number on my cell phone and when he answered I didn’t bother to introduce myself. “That was really bad, wasn’t it?”

Brandon sighed. “Well… yeah.

“I’m sorry man, I’ve been wound super tight lately. I should’ve let it go. I’m sorry, you tried to stop me.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” I heard him shrug. “It was awesome, but yeah. It was kinda bad.”

“Do you think she’s gonna call and complain? I don’t want you guys to get in trouble.”

Brandon sighed again. “I don’t know, she might. It’s fine, people are complaining about everything right now. Some girl accused me of being a racist yesterday when I arrested her boyfriend for beating the shit out of her. And she’s the one who called 911. The world is a shit show.  But on the upside, what you did was so off the wall, I doubt administration will believe it if she does complain.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Are you ok?”

I sighed. “I don’t know. I’m kind of on the teetering edge.”

“You’ve been on the teetering edge for two years now.  It’s why you’re so much fun.  Don’t stress about it. Go home, get some sleep. I’ll catch you later.”

Sometimes it feels like I’m living in reverse.  People are supposed to care less as they spend more time in this job.  I thought all the contact with trauma would make me callous over. Instead, I feel like my skin is getting rubbed off and I’m just a raw nerve, exposed to the world and everything in it. I’m taking things more personally. I’m getting more protective of the dead. I have less and less patience with people who exploit death as a curiosity an amusement… a side-show.

I think I care too much. It matters to me that these people are dead. They’re NOT just extras in someone else’s movie. I want people to know that… to feel that. Maybe I’m asking too much of the human race, but I care.

I feel like this job NEEDS people who care… but this job also DESTROYS people who care.

So what is the answer?