Editor’s note: This story contains information that may be disturbing for some readers.
When the call comes in, Randall Gaylord drops whatever he is working on – whether he is sitting down to a meal or prepping for an important court case.
“When they come up, they become more urgent than anything else,” he said. “People need to be contacted … all of this has to happen right away, but it can be very disruptive.”
As county coroner, Gaylord is the first person in line to deal with unexpected or violent deaths.
Like all counties with a population less than 40,000, Gaylord is the coroner as well as the county prosecuting attorney. Since he was elected prosecuting attorney in 1994, dealing with death has become a part of his life on a weekly basis, revealing a part of the island that is not entirely visible to the general population.
But facing death is not unique for a coroner. What makes Gaylord’s job peculiar is the absence of a morgue facility or a coroner vehicle. When tragedy strikes or even when someone passes from a long illness, what becomes of the body and what steps are taken to ensure that the person is laid to rest is more complicated in an island setting. The call to the coroner’s office is just one stop on a longer journey in the death process on the islands.
“Every case has a puzzle to it,” said Gaylord. “There is always an extra element, a puzzle that we have to solve.”
Cases that fall under the coroner’s office are defined as a death that is unexpected or of violent causes. If a person dies from natural causes, but was not seen by a doctor, the coroner could be called to investigate the
passing. If a person is living in an isolated situation and no one knows of his/her health record, that case would also fall under the coroner’s department.
This is when Gaylord has to start putting together the pieces of the person’s life. Sometimes it’s something as small as a prescription bottle that can solve the mystery by revealing the name of the doctor. If the death is not suspected to be violent, Gaylord generally releases the body to the family as soon as possible. Otherwise the body is transferred off-island for further investigation. Evans Funeral Chapel in Anacortes is the official transporter for the coroner’s office. Evans has an employee and car on Friday Harbor to deal with these cases.
If for some reason the body cannot go directly to Evans, it will be taken to the sheriff’s sub-station or fire stations on-island and then will be picked up by the funeral home. According to Gaylord, refrigeration is only required if a person is held for more than 24 hours. For that reason, he insists that funeral homes serving the islands make it a priority to pick up the deceased within 24 hours.
According to Evans Funeral Director Joe Waham, hospice will often call and notify him that the person is expected to pass in several days. At that point he can make a reservation on the ferry in order to be at the family’s home close to the time of death. If for some reason they can’t get on a ferry in short notice they will catch the red eye boat. Waham said often families prefer some time for final goodbye with their loved one.
“It is the most significant experience a family can go through together,” he said.
If Gaylord deems an autopsy necessary, the body is taken to the medical examiner in Snohomish. If there is any question that a person had a violent death, Gaylord sends for an autopsy.
“Even if it looks obvious, sometimes there are other injuries,” he said. “You only have one chance to look for things.”
Use of drugs or alcohol are not always apparent. And post-mortem injuries aren’t always visible on the outside. For instance, Gaylord had a case where someone had choked but the lodged item wasn’t found until the autopsy.
When a woman on Orcas passed away in June, several of her friends were concerned that she would be left in her home for multiple days.
Undersheriff Brent Johnson, who has worked on the islands for 14 years, said if deputies know a person has died they never ignore the situation.
“We move bodies quickly here,” he said. “We wouldn’t leave them there. That would not happen.”
But if a person does die of natural causes family members or friends are responsible for calling the funeral home. According to Gaylord, the hospice nurses help with this step, and if necessary, the sheriff dispatcher can help.
Islanders may not be aware of the process that occurs when someone passes unless they have gone through the experience firsthand.
“Lots of people are protected from the process; younger people not involved in all of the events that occur before the funeral,” Gaylord said. “There is a continuum of life and death, and how you deal with it shows character in people and brings out the best as well as the worst.”
The island’s geography can also bring out these two sides, even making a mourning situation a logistical nightmare. Last year someone died on Crane Island, and Gaylord went with the sheriff and the sheriff’s boat to retrieve the body. Unfortunately they couldn’t get the boat to shore because of a low tide. So Gaylord returned with his own boat. Once on land, he realized he needed help to transport the body. Luckily a neighbor and his coworkers agreed to carry the deceased. Gaylord’s job is not always easy for just one man.
Often Gaylord enlists the help of the sheriff’s and fire department to use their vehicle on difficult roads or whenever extra hands are needed to move a person’s body. Once a person died in the bow of a sailboat, and Gaylord enlisted the help of the fire department to get the person out.
“You need manpower to move people,” he said. “So we need the people who have capabilities to muster, who can put a call out to volunteers.”
Dealing with death
For more than 20 years death has been a regular occurrence in Gaylord’s life, and he is not sure how he is able to live with that fact.
“The thing I say to my wife is, ‘My day has been wrecked.’ Because there are times I have been affected by deaths,” he said.
Every time Gaylord has been called to a suicide or a homicide his whole day has been hijacked into another dimension and into a darkness that he can’t avoid.
“I don’t try to muscle through it,” said Gaylord, who talks about these situations with his coworkers, but his overall philosophy is not to dwell on the subject. And when talking doesn’t always do the trick you can find Gaylord running trails in the state park on Orcas, where he lives.
“I like to do something that brings life back to me,” he said.
For the undersheriff, who also deals with difficult calls, facing death has propelled him to a certain kind of ritual. When he arrives on the scene of a person who has recently died he says a little prayer as he crosses the threshold. If the situation is appropriate and he is not in danger of tampering with evidence, he pats the person’s head and says, “Go ahead on your journey.”
“That’s how I handle death,” said Johnson. “We lose family members too. You [the officer] may have recently lost a family member and the first call you get is another senior who has just died. It reminds you of your mom and dad, and you just work through it.”
What can you do?
For people who are going through the process or have just lost their loved one, Gaylord said it’s important that they contact the coroner’s office. He advises that they check with their family’s doctor or hospice workers to get the death certificate to the coroner’s office, helping Gaylord do less puzzling in the aftermath of their passing.
“We do our best with the resources,” Gaylord said.
But they can always use help.