A couple months ago I had the chance to take a tour of the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s facilities. I made an appointment with the director and he was gracious enough to allow me to come and walk through their morgue and generally ask him anything I wanted, for which I am eternally grateful.
I began my “day in the crypt,” not in a the crypt at all, but running around 850 Bryant Street bugging cops and administrators. Well, I really had to. I simply could not have my characters going to the wrongs floors and divisions.
The first thing I learned is that they don’t want to talk to you, generally speaking. Well, Homicide had no interest in seeing my face. They just gave me a flat out “No.” All right, fair enough, I can take a hint.
I did, however, meet one police officer who took the time of day to explain the set up of the departments a bit. I asked him, jokingly, if they had a paranormal department. Quite seriously he explained to me they take reports from people who call in complaining of ghosts or paranormal activities. He cited one incident wherein the caller complained of dead police officers going through his drawers. Such reports eventually make their way over to Special Victims unit where they do a follow up on the reporter to make sure everything is A Okay, as in, they’re not going to jump off the bridge or something.
So, if you see a ghost in San Francisco, call the cops.
My appointment for the morgue was at 3:30. Chris, the director, greeted me and showed me the ropes. I didn’t know this, but as recent as the late 80’s the old Medical Court was still in practice. This is where, in order to “determine” cause of death, they would call the decedent’s family and friends together and just sort of talk it out.
After that we made passage to the viewing room. The decor was akin to the greenish overlays of the Matrix universe. A lot of green actually and old paneling. Contrary to movies and TV shows, people don’t go into the crypt. And when I say people, I mean, if you’re not a doctor you don’t go in there. Cops aren’t just waltzing in and looking under the sheet at the mauled dead guy. Nor are family members going into the crypt to stand over the decedent to identify their son or daughter. That’s what the viewing room is for. There is a big plexi-glass window and a small chamber on the other side where the corpse is displayed. The family member stands in the other room and identifies or, more likely, grieves.
Next stop: crypt. You ever smell a dead mouse? How about 15 of them? The decor looked to me like a 1950’s high school locker room. Greenish tile on the walls, cement floors and white porcelain sink tables. I’d say there were about 6 of those tables, where you had a sink at one end with the table tilted to drain into the sink. When we walked in, two techs had a cadaver laid out, partially obscured with a sheet. The big, strong looking tech began zipping up a body bag and shoving the head inside, slightly reminiscent of packing luggage.
They really don’t want you seeing the dead when you go in there. Not totally sure why. The doc made this comment: “Oh come in, you’re not going to see anything, well, other than this poop.”
Chris explained it very aptly. “This is a messy job.” You just don’t appreciate the meaning of those words until you perform an autopsy or, perhaps, three hundred.
Anyway, he showed me the scales where they do some detestable things like weigh brains and hearts and livers. All the body organs. Then came the industrial bone saw. And what is this used for? Cutting around the head and phlewlck off comes the skull cap.
Every sink table had a big pair of branch clippers hanging off the side. Those, my guide said, are the best tools for opening a chest plate. Home Depot employees have no idea why I buy so many.
The air filtration system is set up with vents in the floor so that the air flows downward. In other words, to ground airborne diseases.
Piles of implements commanded one side table. Lots of scalpels and knives and scissor-like objects. They were clean, of course.
We discussed the various storage techniques. They don’t have those oh so sleek morgue freezer drawers you always see in the movies. You know, the stainless steel kind that slide open like the newest Frigidaire. Nah, just a big refer, like in a commercial kitchen where they might keep the lettuce. The gurneys stand side by side, a bunch of stiffs laying around under sheets, feet sticking out, like some fucked up toga party. They can fit 16 gurneys in there at the same time.
We examined the drying chamber. It sits in the corner like an enclosed shower stall. It’s for drying off the dead found in the bay. And they get some doozies from the bay. You see, marine life are awfully fond of fingers, toes, noses and wait for it, penises and testicles. Yeah. What else can you say? Yeah.
In the end, we stood there in the middle of the morgue, the scent of decaying flesh all around us, discussing the hard realities of what it means to be dead. Nothing quite spoils human dignity like death.
If the death wasn’t expected or obvious, these folks are there to find out why. These folks have a hard job and as Chris said, a messy one. And when they’re not carving up cadavers, they’re dealing with survivors and that can’t be easy.
I asked Chris if he got a lot of requests for tours. He said he did and that he almost never grants them. I wondered why he toured me. Whatever his reason, I am glad he did.
Expecting to be horrified, have nightmares, or at the very least, lingering thoughts, I was struck with something else entirely: the sentiment of “it’s not so bad.” Quite simply everyone dies. What a terrible thing to say, and yet, when you can admit it, you find a kind of peace with it.