Bronx morticians cope with humor

Morticians who work for the Bronx medical examiner's office say they cope with the stress of their jobs by maintaining a good sense of humor. Photo by Meredith Bennet-Smith

When Gwen Coffiel gets behind at her job in the Bronx, her supervisor reminds her she’s “not sewing pants, the stitches don’t have to be perfect.”

Coffiel works in the medical examiner’s office, and her supervisor is certainly right about the pants – part of Coffiel’s job is working in the morgue, sewing up bodies after they’ve been autopsied.

It is this sort of gallows humor that helps keep the tight-knit bunch of mortician technicians sane in their workplace, the gray, eight-story Bronx morgue building, located on the outskirts of the sprawling Jacobi Medical Center in the East Bronx. Theirs is a sense of humor that can make a decapitated head rolling over your foot sound like a punch line, or compare an autopsy examination to a sewing workshop.

But there is a central theme. When you work everyday with remains, many of which would not be out of place on a slasher film set, they stop being people and become more like objects – objects to be examined and and toe-tagged before being sent on the next leg of their journey.

The Office of the Medical Examiner autopsies about 5,000 bodies each year across its five borough branches. The number of bodies per day varies, with as few as zero or as many as 20 needing attention. The medical examiner does not examine all deaths, however – only those that are unusual, unexpected or suspicious, said Ellen Borakove, an OCME spokesperson. If it is determined the death was caused in some way by another person, it is classified a homicide and the findings are handed over to the authorities. Police then make the decision whether to open a murder investigation.

Contrary to popular public perception, a homicide and a murder are not the same thing.

“A homicide means the actions of one person caused the death of another person,” Borakove said. “Did they (mean) to do it, or was it an accident? That’s something for the courts to decide. We don’t make judgments.”

But often cases are far from black and white.

Renay Schleretch had flaming auburn hair and a penchant for horror movies when she joined the OCME out of high school. One day, a boy came in with a hatchet stuck in his skull. The father claimed he had been trying to scare his son, to teach him a lesson, and the blade had just slipped.

The blade was embedded so deeply in the boy’s skull, however, that Scheleretch said she had to use all of her strength to pry it out.

I’m strong, but it took a couple of minutes (to remove),” she said.

The sound the metal made as it was wrenched from the bone  stuck with her for days, she said.

The City of New York offers counseling services for employees emotionally traumatized in the workplace. But Schleretech said she has never utilized them, preferring her own brand of release – her mortician’s sense of humor mixed with some very important alone time.

Some guys will go bowling, go to bars,” Schleretch said. “I just go home, crack a beer and sit real quiet.”

Like many offices, the staff in the Bronx loves a good co-worker prank. A favorite form of veteran-rookie teasing is to wait until a new tech goes into the freezer, where all the bodies are kept, and then turn the lights off.

Eventually, you either find a way to cope or you find a different line of work, workers said.

Coffiel, who tried her hand as a former funeral director and preschool teacher before joining the OCME, said she thought about quitting on several occasions. And she’s blunt about what keeps her pulling on her scrubs again each morning – it’s a job.

During her first week with the OCME, Coffiel said she vomited every day. She and a co-worker took turns examining the body and running for the sink.

“I was like, I’m never going to eat again,” she said. “But then I got hungry.”

For former technician Hector Sotomayor, the job ultimately wasn’t enough. Sotomayor now works at a Jacobi Medical Center loading dock, within view of his old building. He said he transferred departments after waking up one day and realizing that “psyching himself out” everyday wasn’t working anymore. The OCME is not for everyone.

You see a lot of depressing stuff,” Sotomayor said. “One time I had this kid who looked exactly like my son. I couldn’t handle it; I just started crying. (Another time) I had to assist on someone I knew. So I took wet tissue paper and put it on his face.”

On a recent afternoon, Coffiel and Schleretch sat in the medical examiner’s parking lot, swapping Marlboros and war stories. A driver casually pushing two gurneys passed not six feet from the joking pair, who never even looked up. The man loaded his maroon-swaddled charges into the back of a shabby hearse, pushed a black suitcase in after the corpses, slammed his doors and drove away.