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A Day in the Life of a Death Investigator

Elizabeth Ortiz, MS, F-ABMDI

Blood. Skin slippage. Methane gas. Maggots. Those are just a few of the things I encounter when I am called to investigate a death. Granted the majority of the deaths I investigate are not as gruesome as everyone seems to think. The majority are natural deaths and many have died in their bed, peacefully. The current television shows and the media portray our jobs as always being knee deep in blood or maggots. Not so.

If anyone is interested in what encompasses the majority of the cases in the county they reside in, they can search their county website and obtain that information. Or if they want to look at the overall number of deaths in their state or even country, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention can provide amazing statistics for the types of deaths primarily affecting the human population. In all, it will show the majority of us live long lives and ultimately some type of natural disease will take our life.

Now, there are times when I am inundated with everything but a natural death and these cases tend to tug at my heart strings a little more than a natural death. The reason being is that someone who has died a natural death tends to be older and I assume they have lived a great life but now their body had become tired and the disease has taken over. I don’t know if that is always true but I chose to believe that. It makes it easier for me. As for the other types of deaths, not so much. These are unexpected deaths and sometimes these deaths raise more questions than answers.

It is extremely sad to see what other humans do to each other. It is even sadder when I see what we do to ourselves. There are images in my mind that nobody should ever see but in this line of work, I will always encounter such images. To be in this field you truly have to know who you are but also know how you are going to handle the situation. Afterwards you have to look inside of yourself and decide how you are going to leave work at work and enjoy life.

If choosing this as a career and simply hate the idea of dissecting a worm or a pig, this is not for you. As a death investigator, I have learned to compartmentalize what I see and work with the notion that this person is just a shell, an empty shell. Whoever this individual was when they were alive is a thing of the past and that is how I have survived. If you focus primarily on what this person was thinking, feeling, seeing or saying then you will not survive in this profession. If you place emotions on the death you are investigating, your mind will at some point shut down. You will be of little use to the investigation, the family and yourself.

Taking classes in anatomy and physiology are great stepping stones but it is the required labs that make the decision for you if you want to be immersed in a field of forensics. There are many individuals who are attracted to the idea of investigating murders but cannot stomach the idea of seeing blood or a piece of tissue. As a death investigator, there really is no way around it. As a matter of fact, it is my duty to also pick up the “pieces.” Therefore, those seeking a career as a death investigator are truly encouraged to enroll in anatomy classes or ask a school or a teaching hospital for permission to view an autopsy. Maybe ask your local law enforcement department for a ride along with either a police officer or a crime scene investigator. Those last two options will help you determine if this is something you want to embark on.

Death investigations are not glamourous and they do not always provide you or the family with an answer but you are tasked with treating the decedent with the outmost respect. Ultimately, in my mind this is your primary goal, treat a loved one as you would want your loved one to be treated.