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Deadhouse - Life in a Coroner's Office


Life in a Coroner's Office

By John Temple
Paperback : 9781934110300, 184 pages, July 2007
Hardcover : 9781578067435, 184 pages, March 2005

An inside look at a big city coroner’s office where investigators probe the mysteries of death


Deadhouse: Life in a Coroner's Office chronicles the exploits of a diverse team of investigators at a coroner's office in Pittsburgh. Ed Strimlan is a doctor who never got to practice medicine. Instead he discovers how people died. Mike Chichwak is a stolid ex-paramedic, respected around the office for his compassion and doggedness. Tiffani Hunt is twenty-one, a single mother who questions whether she wants to spend her nights around dead bodies.

All three deputy coroners share one trait: a compulsive curiosity. A good thing too because any observation at a death scene can prove meaningful. A bag of groceries standing on a kitchen counter, the milk turning sour. A broken lamp lying on the carpet of an otherwise tidy living room. When they approach a corpse, the investigators consider everything. Is the victim face-up or down? How stiff are the limbs? Are the hands dirty or clean? By the time they bag the body and load it into the coroner's wagon, Tiffani, Ed, and Mike have often unearthed intimate details that are unknown even to the victim's family and friends.

The intrigues of investigating death help make up for the bad parts of the job. There are plenty of burdens—grief-stricken families, decomposed bodies, tangled local politics, and gore. And maybe worst of all is the ever-present reminder of mortality and human frailness.

Deadhouse also chronicles the evolution of forensic medicine, from early rituals performed over corpses found dead to the controversial advent of modern forensic pathology. It explains how pathologists “read” bullet wounds and lacerations, how someone dies from a drug overdose or a motorcycle crash or a drowning, and how investigators uncover the clues that lead to the truth.


In 2000, Pittsburgh journalist Temple spent time in the Allegheny County Coroner's Office, riding out with its personnel on calls to collect bodies and returning to watch the autopsies. Temple imparts a general impression of forensic pathology, and his accounts of two female interns' reactions to the sights and smells provide a reality check for readers considering the career. Tracy and Carey learn the ropes and the lingo of the macabre from a staff that has seen it all—murders, suicides, overdoses. The newbies absorb from the veterans the necessary distance to perform the job, especially on “floaters and stinkers,” described here in unsparing detail. Occasionally, the chief of the office glides past the dissection tables dispensing advice, and since he is the nationally famous Dr. Cyril Wecht, his employees pay attention. In between specific cases, Temple provides mini-histories of the office of coroner, how it differs from that of a medical examiner, and the techniques of forensics. Writing evenly and efficiently, Temple will enlighten fans of the CSI television shows.

- Gilbert Taylor, Booklist