The third expert I interviewed for my book, Three May Keep a Secret, is Bill Underwood, Warren County Coroner, who works out of our town, Monmouth, Illinois. Monmouth is a college town in west central Illinois with a population of 10,000. Bill and I met in a local restaurant over coffee.
[I should mention that this post is a reworking of an earlier post when I was still writing that book.]
My interview with Bill involved learning answers to my quesions about shootings, stabbings, and fire deaths. He is highly qualified to answer these
questions. While he is not a doctor, he did study mortuary science so he knows his way around death and bodies. It became apparent, as I questioned him, that he has seen some amazing events during his time on the job.
Underwood is the gateway for laying people to rest in Warren County. Usually he has 140 cases a year and 250 deaths. He signs both death and cremation certificates, and both are filled out and filed electronically these days. No one can
be buried or cremated without a signed certificate, so if there is a question, the certificate is held up until the death is investigated. The coroner can also order an autopsy even if the family does not agree. Whenever there is any suspicion about a death, the coroner has the legal ability to keep a body from being disposed of until the suspicion is satisfied.
Underwood can order tests, or the medical examiner can order them when he does an autopsy. Usually they do toxicology tests and tissue blocks, and they always keep sample tissues. The best test, especially for a DUI, is from the vitreous fluid in the eye (I don't even want to think about that one.) The medical authorities also save samples of tissue from the brain, liver, lungs, and other organs.
Bill is called out to home deaths, ER deaths, hospital deaths less than 24 hours old, suicides, homicides, and sometimes hospice deaths.
When he is called out to a death scene, Bill takes photos or has the Illinois State Police take photos, say, in a gunshot death. He talks to the authorities at the scene and, in the case of a fire, waits for the Fire Marshal. The coroner has two jobs at the scene: (1) get the
body removed once photos and an exam are done; and (2) notify the family. The latter is very important and, because scanners can be bought by private citizens, that notification sometimes becomes a nightmare.
Several examinations determine cause and manner of death. At the scene the coroner checks for the time of death, which might be determined by rigor mortis and lividity. Sometimes a temperature is taken, particularly in the death of a child. In adults the core temperature goes down one degree per hour, and in children two degrees per hour after death.
If the death is suspicious, Underwood accompanies the body to an autopsy or one of his deputies does. He has four deputies scattered through local funeral homes. A forensic pathologist does the autopsy, and the coroner and state police attend the postmortem. In our area that is done at the Peoria County Morgue. It is
really important that the "chain of evidence" be protected, so this is why the coroner signs a card saying he has checked the body at the scene and accompanied it, or caused it to be accompanied, by qualified personnel.
I asked Underwood about inquests because I remember reading about them in the past. In fact, I read a newspaper account of an inquest concerning a fire that happened years ago, resulting in a fatality. Inquests used to always be held because the law said they must be held in all deaths. But recently the law was changed to say an inquest "may" be held. Rarely are they held now except in the case of a suspicious death. The coroner can call the inquest and he has a jury pool of six people. He calls in witnesses and uses depositions to indicate the cause of death and how it will be labeled. There are five causes of death: homicide, suicide, natural, undetermined, and accidental.
Hmmm...as an author, I only concentrated on the first one. And talking to Bill determined an important decision about my research: I have decided to draw the line on ever seeing an autopsy as part of my book research. Ever.