You've made some bargains. We all have. Maybe you allow yourself a single Tommy’s burger every six months. Maybe you’ve given up meat altogether, or red meat anyway, most of the time. Maybe you’re serious about this and you’ve given up all refined grains and any processed anything; the extra buck a pound to buy organic seems a reasonable sacrifice. You’ve given up booze, cigarettes, pills, cocaine, sex with strangers. You tell yourself you don’t miss them. You wear sunscreen and eat flaxseeds. You go to the gym on breezy Sundays when you’d rather lie around. You go to yoga classes even though the chanting makes you want the world to end. You sold your motorcycle years ago. You cross at the light and look both ways.
No matter how many sacrifices you make to Lady Death, no matter how rich the offerings you lay before her altar, she will know where to find you. When she comes, she will hold you tight, and she will never let you go. Don’t be frightened. She takes us all.
Even here in Los Angeles, in the glow of so much newness, she takes 60,000 of us each year. That’s 164 each day. Imagine them all lying side by side, napping forever without a snore. The sun goes down and rises again, and 164 more are sleeping beside them, resting cheeks on shoulders, ears on arms. One day you will join their still parade. Chances are good—about one in four in L.A. County—that death will grab you by the heart. Coronary disease is by far our leading cause of mortality, as it is in the rest of the country. L.A.’s specific inequities, though, travel as deeply through death as they do through life. In this and other ways, death maps life. If you’re an African American or a Latino male and you die before 75, you’re more likely to die of homicide than any other cause. The same goes if you’re of any race or either gender and you live in South L.A. If you’re white or live west of La Cienega and it’s not your ticker that gets you, it will most likely be an overdose, or a car crash, or lung cancer, or your own hand—murder is not even in the running.
Whoever you are and wherever you live, you will go. You will not be you anymore. Not exactly. You will be a corpse, a cadaver, a decedent, a “loved one.” You will be remains. The death industry employs more euphemisms than politicians do. Someone will find what’s left of you. A child, spouse, or parent. A nurse or passerby. Whoever it is will call for help. At home, at work, or in the street, he or she will dial 911. In a hospital, hospice, or nursing home, someone will call your doctor, who will check one last time for vital signs, declare you dead, and fill out the proper forms. A nurse will remove your clothes and close your eyes. (Not just for modesty’s sake: Rigor mortis hits the eyelids fast.) He or she will tie a tag bearing your name, which you can no longer speak, onto one of your toes, cover you with a plastic shroud, and wheel you to an elevator and thence to the morgue. In most hospitals it is in the basement. You will be rolled from the gurney into a refrigerated drawer. The door will close behind you. It will be dark and cold, but you won’t care.
So here you are, dead and alone. Chances are you didn’t want this, but your wishes were ignored. Whatever happens to the part of you that you recognize as somehow quintessentially you (call it soul, self, spirit, spark), the other part isn’t finished yet—the fleshly part, the limbs and guts that ached and pleased you in so many ways, the meaty bits that you vainly or grudgingly dragged around for all those years. That piece is still of interest to the bureaucrats. It is still a potential source of profit. In your absence its journey is just beginning.
The path forks before it. Which way it goes will be determined by the cause of your demise. All the state wants is a death certificate: Think of it as a letter from your doctor excusing you from paying income tax forever. The county, though, wants to know why you died and if there might be a reason to push the cops and the courts and the jails into motion. The coroner holds the key to all that machinery. The key itself is what you once called you. If you have not been under the care of a physician for six months, if you die during surgery or as a result of injuries sustained in an accident or an assault (self-inflicted or otherwise), or if there’s any suspicion that your death might be something other than “natural,” your next stop will be the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner—which is, assistant chief coroner Ed Winter tells me more than once, the busiest such department in the country.
It investigates 18,000 deaths a year, dispatching 36 investigators to the far edges of its jurisdiction—from Lancaster to Long Beach and West Covina to Catalina Island, from oil tankers and cruise ships anchored off the coast to jets on the runway at LAX. One of those investigators will come to you. He or she (let’s go with she, because more often these days the investigators are women) will search your pockets for ID. If you are at home, she will nose around for medical records. She will interview relatives, witnesses to your final moments, and the police at the scene. She will photograph and examine you. You’ve seen this part on TV. When she has finished, she and a driver will load you into the rear of a white county van and take you on one last drive down one last freeway, through one last Sig-Alert, off that final off-ramp onto Mission Road. At the corner of Marengo they will pull into a driveway at the side of an elegant old brick building. They will open the back of the van, roll you out, and take you inside, where you will wait quietly in the coroner’s fridge until one of 25 overburdened pathologists is ready to examine you.
Winter, a 61-year-old goateed ex-cop with a cranky sort of charm, squints and counts the day’s cases on his computer monitor. It’s 9:30 in the morning. “Since eight o’clock, I’ve gotten one, two, three, four, five more,” he says. “Got an undetermined, a child. Got an accident, 63-year-old male. Another accident: unknown male Caucasian, 30 to 40, found unresponsive by passerby at a construction site. And an unknown male found floating in the ocean dressed in T-shirt and jeans, Pacific Coast Highway.” He stops reading and looks up. “We’re frigging always busy.”
It’s not just the dead. The telephone rings, and it’s a reporter. He has questions about Brittany Murphy’s husband. Winter puts the call on speakerphone and rolls his eyes. When Winter and I first met a few weeks earlier, he pushed a sheet of paper across his desk. It was an inventory of celebrity deaths the coroner’s office had investigated during the previous year. Michael Jackson’s name was listed twice.
In the lobby Winter introduces me to Lieutenant David Smith, a genial, dapper man of 46 with a white handlebar mustache, who supervises the department’s identification and notification division. Right now Smith’s mind is on other things. “Part of the issue I’m dealing with here,” he tells me in the elevator, “is extremely overweight bodies that have to be cremated.” By state law, if nobody picks you up after 30 days, you will be incinerated. In bureaucratese this is called “county disposition,” or “county dispo” for short. Smith located a private crematorium willing to kindle his uncollected dead, but it wouldn’t take bodies over 350 pounds. He found a mortuary in Orange County that wanted seven bucks for every pound over 350, but even it topped off at 400 pounds. “I had one the other day who was 710 pounds,” Smith says. The problem seems to have been solved: Odd Fellows Cemetery in Boyle Heights specializes in the incineration of the truly obese and charges a flat rate of one dollar a pound.
Again, death maps life. County budgets are tight, and more families can’t afford funerals. L.A. County will charge your next of kin $352 to pick up your ashes (cremains, if you prefer), which is about what Forest Lawn wants just to chauffeur you from your deathbed to its oven door. So more families than ever have to settle for the grim anonymity of “county dispo.”
Smith’s main responsibility is to identify you and notify your family that you have died. If the investigator sent out to the scene was unable to make a positive ID, you are for the moment a John or Jane Doe. These categories, Smith says, are further subdivided into “soft Does” and “hard Does.” You are a soft Doe if you were found locked in your own apartment, for instance, and the investigator is pretty sure you are you—but you are too decomposed for anyone to be certain. Your fingers are too far gone to yield prints, but Smith’s people should be able to confirm your identity through dental records or X rays. You are a hard Doe if you were discovered in an alley or in the trunk of a car and you didn’t have your wallet and there was no one around who knew that you were you. Then the only real options are fingerprint databases and DNA, and the latter is likely to be on record only if you’ve been convicted of a felony.
Once they’ve pinned a name on you, Smith and two other investigators will start looking for your family. If they turn up an address, they’ll send a letter out. If they find a phone number, they’ll call. “We notified somebody through MySpace one time,” Smith says. The phone calls can be tricky. Some people laugh on hearing the news. Some are apathetic. Some start screaming. “If the phone just drops, we call 911,” Smith says. “We don’t want another case.” Sometimes the next of kin are in denial. “You have to use the power words: ‘They’re dead.’ ”
. . .
Read the rest of this Los Angeles magazine story that won the 2011 National Magazine Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors for feature writing, republished with permission from the author Ben Ehrenreich.