YELLOWKNIFE

The County Coroner by Cara Bryant

The Northwest Territories is a vast expanse of land with a small population. There are roughly 44,000 souls spread out over 442,000 square miles of thick forest and vast tundra. Given the circumstances, when it comes to filling jobs, there are challenges in finding staff. One of those jobs is community coroner. The term “community” means not a traditional coroner. Most people think of a pathologist or someone with medical training. In the NWT and a few other Canadian provinces, people with no experience—but able to lift upwards of 100 pounds—are hired all the time to be community coroners. It is a job I began with no formal education in medicine of any kind. Other than episodes of CSI, I was not familiar with what the job would entail. 

Basically, when a sudden death occurs, there is a need for someone to remove the body from the scene, or if it is already in the hospital, take it to the morgue. There’s a lot of paperwork to fill out, on top of working with the family of the deceased and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). I don’t inform the family of the death, that heart-wrenching job is left to the police. 

It can be surprising what objects hold sentimental value for people. I once had the wife of a deceased person ask to be given back a plastic sandwich bag found in a pocket. Click To Tweet

Part of the job involves examining the body and recording any contents the person had on them, like wallet, jewelry, etc. I always took great care with possessions, no matter what they were. It can be surprising what objects hold sentimental value for people. I once had the wife of a deceased person ask to be given back a plastic sandwich bag found in a pocket. 

I remember clearly early on in my coroner work doing an exam on an elderly woman who had passed away a few hours prior. The deputy coroner was writing down my findings, any bruising or cuts, that sort of thing. Holding her arm, it jerked out of my hands, causing me to scream in surprise. A moment of sheer terror that the deputy thought was hilarious. Rigor mortis had begun to set in. 

Another night, I had actually just gotten into bed when I was called to the scene of a crash. A man had been killed in a vehicle collision. He was stuck inside the car, which was severely banged up. Removing him in the middle of nowhere in -40F was no easy task. With no other options, myself and some of the other first responders had to physically pull him out of the car. The rubber gloves I had been given froze to my hands in seconds and I had to take them off. I wore my thick winter gloves instead. I had forgotten to put on my snow pants and my legs were nearly frost bitten by the time we got back. 

It’s certainly not an easy job. When I tell people about the work I do the reaction is often one of revulsion and/or confusion as to why I would volunteer for such a job. To be clear, I do get paid a flat rate per case. Death is a scary thing for a lot of people and they rather avoid it all together. For me, it has created a great appreciation for life. It’s also a reminder to wear your seatbelt, your helmet, your lifejacket every. Single. Time.