Business Is Dead: A Look Inside The Morgue
Columbus, Ohio – Dr. Jan Gorniak doesn’t get grossed out. This Franklin County coroner doesn’t have time – she has to analyze corpses all day. Working in the same building as dead bodies, Dr. Gorniak gets up close and personal. When the situation calls for it, Gorniak performs the autopsies on our city’s deceased, taking strict notation of scars, birthmarks, stab wounds and bullet holes.
All of this takes place near campus, at 520 King Ave. Gorniak’s office doubles as the city morgue, and eight of her team members are dual-trained as forensic investigators and morgue technicians. Five forensic pathologists who are involved in autopsies round out Gorniak’s crew, and together they act as the ruling authorities on the circumstances of unexplained or sudden deaths.
“It’s a lot of documentation,” Gorniak said of her duties.
Gorniak was elected county coroner on the Democratic ticket in November and took office in January of this year. A former forensic pathologist, she resided in Cleveland as coroner of Hamilton County before coming to Columbus.
Beginning with the “morning rounds,” Gorniak analyzes the bodies that arrived overnight in sterilized body bags. After a thorough external examination and a group discussion, Gorniak determines whether a concise explanation for the death requires a toxicology report or autopsy.
“Everyone who comes into the coroner’s office doesn’t necessarily have to be autopsied,” Gorniak said, explaining that a small percentage of fatalities, (including homicides, suicides or undetermined deaths) actually require them.
When they are required, the process can be as brief as an hour or as lengthy as a few days, depending on how much documentation is necessary.
“We have to describe every single wound,” said Gorniak. “I can have a single gunshot wound, which takes an hour and a half, or I can have a simple drug overdose which can take two hours because the person has a lot of tattoos [or] scars that I have to also document.”
In June, Gorniak worked on the case in which a local woman’s head and arms were dismembered by her murderer. The incident made an impression on her – not the unsettling evidence itself, but rather “what people do to themselves and each other.”
Otherwise, Gorniak is rarely fazed.
Once the autopsy is completed, there is still much more work involved for Gorniak and her assistants to finalize an assessment.
“The autopsy is the easy part … after that, we have to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together,” she said. “Unlike television, where in 23 minutes everybody’s autopsied – case solved – toxicology itself takes four to six weeks to come back.”
The bodies last seen by Gorniak could then very well be on their way to visit Michael Schoedinger, president of Schoedinger Funeral Homes. Schoedinger and his 170 employees make up the largest funeral servicer in Columbus.
“A lot goes on behind the scenes,” Schoedinger said, understandably fatigued at the end of a long Saturday of memorial services. “We have to be available 24/7.”
Schoedinger and company manage the embalming or cremation, calling hours, funereal arrangements and paperwork regarding legal logistics.
“The average funeral has around 20-25 man-hours with all staff involved … over a three to four day period,” Schoedinger said.
The embalming process involves removing the body’s blood through two main veins: the jugular and the corroded artery. Liquid formaldehyde is substituted, which turns to gas upon contact with muscle tissue. The morticians are responsible for washing the body beforehand, as well as dressing it and applying cosmetics. If cremation is requested, Schoedinger has the unique distinction of being the only funeral home with an on-site crematorium.
Funeral direction is the formal converse to Gorniak’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind medical practices. Schoedinger recognizes the importance of balancing business professionalism and empathetic relationships with his distraught customers.
“The best part is [being able] to help people in the worst time of their lives,” Schoedinger said.
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