Never accept “there’s only one down there” for an answer. If you arrive at a hospital or nursing home to pick up Harold, even if there is only one deceased person in the entire building, you must verify that person is Harold before assuming custody. Hopefully, Harold will have an ID band (or even better, Harold died at home surrounded by family). If there is no ID band and nothing else but the word of the staff that it’s him, do not pick up the body.

I broke my own rule recently; actually it is by no means MY rule. I was driving to an unfamiliar county to pick up a body from the medical examiner, and this particular ME did not want to release the body to my funeral home because it is a fairly new business and he was concerned about our legitimacy. I left him a long, rambling after-hours voicemail wherein I stated all manner of things proving I am a real funeral director who maintains a real funeral home, and that I was actually going to pick up this body and do funeral stuff and then proceed with his family’s wishes.

I also put on my best funeral dress and the pearls and the diamond watch; the outfit I normally reserve for very large, formal church services. I really wanted to make a good impression so this ME would remember us in the future, and because I genuinely enjoy meeting anyone connected to the funeral industry.

So I was talking to the medical examiner, having a very nice discussion, actually, and without my noticing, an assistant had already loaded the body into my van. This body had been dead for a long time before being found and I already knew it was going to be a “bad” case, so he was wrapped in several sheets of heavy-duty plastic (which I would later find to be useless).

I thanked the assistant and was on my way out and then I remembered to ask the ME if I could look at the decedent’s ID band.

“He doesn’t have one.”

“May I ask how he was identified?” I know that homicides are identified scientifically, meaning some sort of DNA match or a fingerprint. But this death was considered accidental.

He explained there were some very distinctive physical markings which were preserved, and that was the method of ID. I knew what would be inside the bag and I didn’t want to open it in my van, in my nice clothes. When I returned to the funeral home, the floor of my van was covered with a wet, dark fluid. I knew that would happen, so I didn’t open the bag, and drove off with that explanation from the ME being my only confirmation that this body was who the ME claimed he was.

In a way, it was both the wrong and the right thing to do. When a person has been dead for weeks and has become swollen with gases and liquids of putrefaction, there is a chance that body truly is a health hazard. Nearly all deceased people, even unembalmed, are perfectly safe to touch, dress, and keep in your home unrefrigerated. However, once they reach the point of not being recognizable as human, that is when I do not want to take chances and handle the body without a full Hazmat suit on. Gloves and a smock would not be enough. The body was covered with large, fluid-filled blisters. I could not take a chance at having a blister burst and then splash me in the eyes or mouth.

My intern asked about the ID band and then admonished me for not doing more to verify who the decedent was. He was right to do so. I was wrong not to open the bag. But, it was also a completely appropriate action to refuse to open the bag without full protective equipment.

Of course, I did have the right body and his family confirmed this with the funeral home. In retrospect, what should have happened was me walking in and immediately asking to see the body or some form of identification and then not leaving with that body until I was absolutely certain of whom I was taking into custody. I should have brought protective equipment, or asked for some. I should have insisted on loading up the body myself.

I try to learn something with every mistake, so I have put together a “death scene kit.” I actually had fun doing it. I got a large plastic storage bin and just started filling it with everything I could possibly need at the scene of a death, even though I do very few medical examiner removals anymore. That was the job I had in college, and every time I came back from the scene of a violent death or a found body, I would often wish I had brought this or that. And now I have it. I have a disaster pouch and a sling for in case two staff are carrying a body downstairs. I have my own gloves and protective gear. I have a sharp object so I can puncture and drain blisters before wrapping a body up. I even included some stuffed animals and a child-oriented book about death, in the event there are children still in the home when we get there. There is also a Spanish dictionary; stacks of booklets related to funeral planning in case this is a person’s first experience with death; and of course various cleansers and sponges.

This is a job where we cannot be too careful.