Dead Reckoning

Bodies arriving are weighed and measured before they are put on one of five stainless steel tables.
  • Bodies arriving are weighed and measured before they are put on one of five stainless steel tables.
  • Image by Jim Coit

County Coroner David Stark: "We're not afraid of bodies; it’s just a fact of life."

County Coroner David Stark: "We're not afraid of bodies; it’s just a fact of life."

He was dead The eyes that blinked open at his birth fifty-eight years ago were now closed, scaled forever. His withered face was drawn into a pose of peaceful non-expression. A victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease, his corpse was pale, almost wax-like. and little more than a slightly padded mannequin of skin and bones. A small puddle of condensed water filled the depression at the base of his neck.

Somewhere in San Diego his family was probably weeping for him, but here the only sound was the sporadic drone of a huge refrigeration unit protruding from the back wall. Here in the coroner’s storage facility he was surrounded by eight members of his new. lifeless peer group, each covered by a white sheet, each balancing a shopping bag of personal possessions on their ankles.

Coroner's tools. These professionals have made careers out of exploring the human body for the cause of its final malfunction.

Coroner's tools. These professionals have made careers out of exploring the human body for the cause of its final malfunction.

I never knew him in life, but this postmortem meeting, though brief, I will not soon forget. To inspect death so leisurely and so closely is disquieting. For most of us, it is a mystery, an abstraction made concrete only rarely. But for more than thirty individuals employed by the San Diego County Coroner’s Office, death is commonplace. In fact, it is their livelihood.

Every year the coroner’s office investigates about 2800 of the county’s deaths (12,400 in 1977) caused by accidents, suicides, murders, and natural causes. Each of the 2800 death certificates resulting from those investigations carries the signature of one man, David J. Stark, who presently holds the position of San Diego County Coroner.

“We certainly have a different perspective of death from the average person. It’s not gruesome; we're not afraid of bodies; it’s just a fact of life,” Stark said from behind the cluttered desk of his office in the coroner’s building, located in the county operations complex at the end of Overland Avenue in Kearny Mesa. On the wall directly across from his desk hangs a grim reminder of his most memorable working day: the infamous photograph of a crippled and burning PSA Flight 182, snapped seconds before it crashed in North Park. “I think many of the people here, in their relationships with other people and their families, have a little insight into life that other people either don’t know about or don’t want to know about,” he added. “That is that life is very fragile and very temporary. Some husbands left the house this morning and they will never come home again. So if you leave the house in anger, that’s going to be your last impression.”

Stark, a soft-spoken man with graying hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and a rugged face, was born the son of a Congregationalist minister in Ohio before moving to Southern California in the 1940s, during his high-school days. After returning from service in the Korean conflict, he decided not to pursue a job using his college degree (in sociology), and instead joined some friends who were enrolled at the California College of Mortuary Services in Los Angeles. Eventually he became an embalmer. In 1962 Stark joined the San Diego County Coroner’s Office as an embalmer. later became a deputy coroner, and eventually worked through the ranks to become acting coroner when Robert L. Creason retired early last year. After eight months as acting coroner, David Stark was designated coroner on October 18, 1978.

He said people can learn a few things about his office by watching his TV counterpart on the series Quincy, which stars actor Jack Klugman as a crime-busting forensic pathologist coroner. But Stark, who is not a forensic pathologist, also warned that the show’s producers are “dressing up the coroner image in typical Hollywood style.” To illustrate, he noted that Quincy has no trouble pinpointing the time of death down to the minute, but Stark’s men can only estimate the moment to within a couple of hours. San Diego's real-life coroner smiled as he recalled one episode when Quincy reconstructed the appearance of an entire body from nothing more than a thigh bone—no small feat considering that a real forensic pathologist could only determine height, sex, and possibly race if given the same thigh bone. Stark admitted, though, there was probably a little Quincy in all coroners. "There has to be. You have to be curious and not satisfied when you’re not getting answers. That's why this is such a demanding job. You can’t always forget it when you go home at night.”

According to Stark, those aspects of the job that his employees take home with them have more to do with questions of an investigative nature than with the assumed problems of reliving nightmarish visions of particularly hideous deaths. Deputy coroners are usually drawn from the ranks of military medical corpsmen, embalmers. and other occupations familiar with medical terminology and all faces of death, so even the sight of a violent traffic accident has little effect on them. ”I think most of our deputies would tell you that we are dealing with a mystery or a problem to be solved,” the coroner said. “We’re not dealing with death or with gruesome things.”

Stark’s thirteen deputies are very adept at solving the mysteries that face them. Of the 2800 cases they handled in 1977, they were stumped as to the cause of death in less than 25 cases, and were unable to identify only four corpses. These figures are commendable considering the variety of methods used by humans to destroy themselves and others. But the annual handful of John and Jane Does and undeterminable deaths stand in the way of the coroner’s goal of one hundred percent accuracy. “Accuracy is probably the thing we are striving for most, ” Stark noted. "If it takes more time to be accurate, then we can’t be as prompt as we would like to be." Occasionally, the extra time involved in an especially complex investigation can mean considerably more grief for the survivors. but Stark maintains that the delay is justified, for an accurate determination as to the cause of death can mean a great deal to the family in terms of social security benefits, insurance settlements, and other compensation.

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