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THE DEAD ZONE

Want to Find Out Where You Go When You Die? First Stop is Medical Examiner Robert Boggs

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Nestled on a quiet street in Northeast Portland is a small white colonial-style building replete with tasteful columns. It is an unassuming, tranquil-looking structure with a nice lawn in front--but it has dead people inside. Chances are almost certain that if you die in Portland, this will be the first place you'll go.

Also inside is the man who runs the show: Robert Boggs, Chief Deputy Medical Exam-iner for Multnomah County. At first glance, one has to wonder what Boggs is doing spending his life surrounded by corpses. He looks somewhat like Chris Isaak, without the twang and sparkle. He's young, smart, handsome, and an immaculate dresser. His manner is subtle and he is a pleasant man to talk to. "I've been here for almost five years," the 30-something Boggs smiles, casually crossing his legs and leaning back in his chair. "I'll be here forever!"

Unlike Boggs, his clientele can't say the same thing. Once a dead human being arrives here at the coroner's office, the clock starts ticking.

"We have enough spaces for five bodies in our cooler," he tells me. "We have twelve freezer spaces as well. Certainly, you can see the dilemma that we might be faced with at any given time. More bodies than tables."

In a month's time, more bodies move through his office than Gary Condit's condo. "We will have about 3700 cases reported to our office every year," he reveals, "and those are just the cases that fall under our jurisdiction. Roughly half of those will end up coming into our office. We have to decide rather quickly what we're going to do. It becomes a daunting task, at times."

Usually, the office receives five to six bodies per day, just from hospice care. Most of these people have all their documentation in order long before they die, so there are very few surprises there. Additional daily fatalities may include suicides, homicides, drug overdoses, and run-of-the-mill, lethal accidents.

Originally from Colville, Washington, a small town about 60 miles north of Spokane, Boggs came to Oregon to attend mortuary school in Gresham, where he lived and worked at a funeral home. That's right. He lived in a funeral home, off and on for nearly six years.

"I was a starving student and worked part-time at a funeral home," he admits, "and one thing led to another." I ask him if he had to share a bed. "No," he answers emphatically. "I made sure of that."

"I graduated mortuary school in 1988, continued going to school, and worked down here at the same time," he reminisced. "That's how I got my foot in the door. I left for a period of time, worked in the funeral industry before coming back, and filled the position of an investigator that retired. I've been here ever since."


A DAY IN THE LIFE

Primarily, Boggs and his team are charged with investigating the cause and manner of all human deaths within their jurisdiction. They also have to identify remains, make contact with family members if there are any, and ensure final and proper disposition.

"Our office is divided into two distinct parts. There are the investigators, and there are forensic pathologists. The forensic pathologists are medical doctors that have further schooling above and beyond what a normal physician does. I have a variation of both, but I'm more heavily into medical than investigative. Most of my investigative skills came from on-the-job training."

On an average call, the medical examiner team goes to the scene of a death, figures out how it happened and who the person was. "First we try to determine why that person died. Whether the cause and manner would be homicide, suicide, or natural. What we discover at the scene will determine the course of our actions."

"If it is something of a suspicious nature, we'll transport the body to our office and provide the forensic pathologists with our report. They review it, maybe ask us questions, and decide how they're going to proceed whether they're just going to do an external examination of the body, draw fluids and set it up for a toxicology analysis, or if they are actually going to do an autopsy."

Once the remains are at the morgue, as far as any investigation goes, there isn't any reason to keep it around very long. "In terms of what we need from the body, it never lasts more than a few days. That is never an issue."

Unsurprisingly, the cause of death at a homicide is pretty easy to figure out. There's a gunshot wound, a fork stuck in the head things like that. Once they take their samples and finish the autopsy, the body is sent to a funeral home, and the search for relatives continues. "Most of the time, if it is an unidentified set of human remains, the state crime lab might become involved in identification."

Really, the team can only do so much with the resources at hand, and rely on experts from other fields to complete certain investigations. For instance, a corpse found in a body of water may be sent to specialists who inject chemicals into the fingers to puff out pruned fingerprints. A body found in the desert, a mummified corpse, could in turn be re-hydrated. "The skin is all dried out, so they may soak 'em. They've got techniques that I'm not even aware of."


AUTOPSY: THE GRIM PRIMER

"An autopsy includes not only the examination of the external body, but also the internal organs," Boggs discloses. And that goes something like this: First, a Y-shaped incision is made in the thorax and the abdomen, and the skin is opened like a sports jacket. The ribs are cut and the breastplate is removed, exposing all the internal organs. The physician then inspects the organs one by one, making sure they are in the proper positions. Singly, they are removed and weighed, then sliced open and inspected for normalcy. The same thing is done with the brain. Upon completion, the innards and the brain are combined, bagged up, and placed inside the body cavity. (Wouldn't including the brain make the stomach bulge out? I was on my lunch break, so I'm not sure. Regardless) Then, the whole kit and caboodle is shipped off to a funeral home dressed in an attractive plastic wrapper.


UNCLAIMED REMAINS

In most cases, Boggs tracks down family members and decides where the body goes next; to a funeral home, crematorium, or even with the family for a home burial (more on home burials later).

If there's no family, things get a little more complicated, and time is short. Remember; the body should be out of the building in five days. Usually, if the body has been identified and is unclaimed, it is sent to the next in line on a 'turn list' of funeral homes for disposition.

The funeral homes are modestly recompensed from an indigent burial fund for their efforts. Veterans are sometimes buried in Willamette National Cemetery. The rest, except under unusual circumstances, are cremated.

"Nine times out of ten, they're cremated," Boggs maintains, "and their cremated remains are kept in perpetual care. Either in a cemetery, mausoleum, or in a funeral home someplace, indefinitely. That way in the event that family should ever surface in the future, they can at least return the cremated remains."

"Now, there's another side to the story. Say there is somebody that dies intestate (without a will) and has no family, but they have assets. They have a house, a car, or whatnot. If we can't find anybody, then we call the Division of State Lands in Salem. They are the people responsible for picking up where we left off."

The DSL does a more exhaustive search of the person's assets, including bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, investments, etceteras. "If they never do find the family," Boggs says, "then all those assets become property of the state where they're held in the general fund. If, after seven years, no one steps forward to claim that property, then it becomes property of the state. It stays in that general fund and is used to offset (disposition) costs, or it goes to the schools basically, it goes to good use."


CALLING DIBS-- CAN YOU AFFORD IT?

It's a sad but simple fact that many people don't have family at all--but they may have friends. In that event, anyone with the desire can step up and claim the body for the sole purpose of providing a legitimate burial or cremation on their own dime.

Says Boggs; "In our office, we make a reasonable attempt at locating the family. If there is none, and we have a friend that wants to take responsibility, then sure. We'd love to have a friend take care of those arrangements, if they have the means to pay for it. But we cannot hold the body here indefinitely, until you may or may not be able to come up with the money. It is very important, especially after five days of holding them, that we get them on to a place of final rest, so to speak--either buried or cremated."

The average burial can cost anywhere from $450 to $5000. Add the price of a plot and a killer casket, embalming, flowers, cosmetology, refrigeration, motorcycle escorts, and a nice looking hearse, it can easily double that. Cremation is cheaper, but it isn't free. Expect to pay $400 to $2500 for a direct cremation, without ceremony. What's a Grecian Urn? Selling cremation urns earns quite a bit. Urns can range in price and design, from lunch boxes to variations on the Stanley Cup.


DEAD BODIES--A TERRIBLE THING TO WASTE

If no such friends exist, again, the state cuts its share of the proverbial pie. According to state law, unclaimed bodies must first be offered for study to Oregon Health Sciences University before they are destroyed.

"The demonstrator of anatomy at OHSU must be offered the donation first. They have some pretty strict criteria. Normally the cases that we deal with at our office don't meet those criteria. If they have some sort of communicable disease, whether it be Hepatitis, HIV, led a very risky lifestyle, IV drug abuse, they're decomposed, they have some major trauma--those would exclude them from being accepted at OHSU Medical School. But they still must be offered it."

If OHSU declines a donation, it is then offered to the Mt. Hood Community College Mortuary School. That way, says Boggs, those students can use it for educational purposes.

"You know if they're not decomposed or something."


THE NAKED AND THE DEAD

When called to the scene of a death, Boggs' investigative senses are always attuned to potential foul play.

"The first thing I ask myself is, who found the body? What are the circumstances for the discovery? Why was this person there who found the body? I usually try to get all the details leading up to the discovery." Once he identifies the body, so there is no question of identity, he looks at it in its surroundings, the house, apartment, whatever the crime scene may be. Then he tries to interpret why the person died.

"There is never one specific thing where you arrive at the scene and say, 'That's what it is.' You have to look at everything. To jump to conclusions would be a disservice, not only to the dead person, but also to their family."

"It might be enough that we see a ligature around the neck or some other suspicious event. Then again, we might get there and know the person is 87 years old, and there's medication all over the place. That is probably a natural event. The house was properly secured. A family member or neighbor may have called dispatch and said, 'We haven't seen this person in a while--can you check on them?' They kick in the door and find the person dead. It may be something of that nature."

"But say we have a young female that (someone says) is a victim of suicide, and she is completely naked. That is a huge, huge warning sign. Generally speaking, women that kill themselves want to be found in the best possible light. They don't want to be found naked. They don't want to be found in precarious positions. Certainly they can fall into a precarious position, but that's a separate issue. If you find somebody, especially a female, that is naked, and it looks like it is a suicide, or if we have been led to believe it is a suicide, then we need to take a step back and really look at the scene. We photograph the scene well. If need be, we get detectives from Portland Police, or whichever is involved, and take it very, very slow, so that we don't miss anything."

"You really do have to take an objective look. Not listening to what the police are telling you. Not listening to what the EMS tells you. You want to take all that in, but you don't want the information to influence your decision. You have to look at everything objectively and decide on your own what this may or may not be."


HOME BURIAL-- FAMILY VALUES

Strange as it sounds, Boggs informs me it is legal to forego a funeral home altogether. "There may be certain, specific ordinances within specific city limits that may prevent somebody from burying human remains on their property, but from a state-wide standpoint, there's nothing that says that a family cannot bury on their own property."

He recalls a similar situation that happened not long ago.

"A family in the Roseburg area, their son died locally and the body was brought into our office. They lived out in the country and wanted to drive up in their Suburban, pick the person up, transport him to their property, where they had already dug the grave, and bury him. That is perfectly acceptable."

"Now, they had to file the necessary permits for their county, and it would be wise if they put something on their home-owner documents. They are a fairly young couple. Obviously, when they leave or sell the property, there must be something to indicate a person is buried there. Otherwise it could cause quite a bit of confusion if, two generations from now, somebody decides they're going to build a road through this property, and all of a sudden, there's a set of dead human remains."

Not only is there no state law keeping people from burying on their own property, they can use their own vehicles to get them there. Provided they are only going to transport within the state, he cautions.

"A couple weeks ago, I actually got a call from a local hospital that was a little annoyed with a family that wanted to transport a baby that had died. They told them they couldn't do it. I had to tell them otherwise. They had to sign the specific documents, just like a funeral home would, before transporting a body out. And the hospital had to have documentation to support that this family did in fact transport this body. But that family was definitely able to do that."


ASHES TO ASHES-- SCATTER!

Most of us have heard there are limitations to where people can scatter ashes, because after all, they are still human remains, right?

"Yes, they are," Boggs nods. "And again, there may be specific ordinances preventing people from scattering cremated remains in a city park. There used to be a statute that indicated you must be two miles out in the ocean before scattering ashes, but there's nothing on the books at this point that says you can't just go to the beach and scatter the cremated remains. We always tell them to use a little discretion--and of course, to stand up-wind so they don't blow back in your face. Some people are unaware of that."


WORST CASE SCENARIO

One can't help but be impressed with Boggs' ability to talk so casually about his profession. Very few people could do his job with such aplomb. Then of course, he lives with death every day. What could be a bad day, for someone who has virtually seen it all?

"Number one would be children. Children are usually innocent victims. It is a little easier to stomach a death from somebody that well, has died as a result of their own stupidity--when they've abused their body and died as a result. That certainly is a much easier scenario to deal with than a young child who has been brutally murdered."

"Another is: you never want to misidentify a set of human remains. That would be a nightmare. I have not, but it has been done within our office. The typical situation would be in an auto fatality, especially in the younger population; kids who give somebody else their ID. They take off on a motorcycle, they take off in a car, and something happens. Their features are either destroyed because of the trauma or there's a fire involved that alters their physical appearance. Their general appearance may fit the description, and when you notify that family of their loved one's death... suddenly the loved one comes walking in the front door. That happened here many years ago."


GOOD FOR THE GOOSE

With all he's seen at his job, where the manifold means of death run the gamut, I decide to ask Boggs how he'd like it. How would Robert Boggs like to meet his maker? For the first time during our chat, he seems a bit nervous.

"Probably in my sleep," he smiles sheepishly. "Yeah. I've never really given it too much thought, but I for one, certainly don't want to you know go out in a ball of fire or something unusual. Give me a simple heart attack in the middle of the night. That would be fine with me."

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