For several weeks over the summer of 2008 I got glimpse inside the Macomb County Medical Examiner’s morgue just north of Detroit. Dr. Daniel Spitz granted me and my team of video journalists full 24/7 access—not only to his “office” where he performed autopsies, but also to his investigative team and even his personal life. The mandate from MSNBC was “Go out and see what you can get. If you shoot enough for a one hour show, great. If you get even more, fantastic. We came back with enough material to fill three hours.
The “A story” in this episode is a 50-something alcoholic who was found naked with his head through a wall. Was it murder–or a drunken accident? It’s Dr. Spitz’s job to cut the man open and find out.
It was an incredible experience to film this material and it taught me an important lesson: Avoid morgues at all costs, especially in the heat of summer.
Fear of Death
Let’s be honest. Who isn’t afraid of death? So many things about it scare me: What if everyone thinks I’m dead but I’m really not? What if I get buried alive? And the bugs… Yick!
The first time I walked into that morgue I had no idea how I’d react. Would I throw up? Would I faint? Neither, it turns out. When the automatic doors opened, the smell of – what was it, formaldehyde? – hit you like a wall. I got a little woozy at first but I got used to it quickly because I was in and out of there so many times a day. Then there were the bodies. They looked like wax dummies: their skin yellowish, sometimes covered with purple blotches, sometimes marbled like meat at the butcher shop. I marveled at how just a day before these were live people, eating breakfast, driving to work. But after a while I stopped noticing them as much. They start to become part of the furniture in a place like this.
The Cases That Hit Me Hardest
The 38-year-old who died in a motorcycle accident and the 19-year-old who hanged himself, those were the cases that bothered me the most. They were so young and their deaths so avoidable.
Bizarro tidbit: I got back to 30 Rock and was screening the footage in real time. The motorcycle accident victim was just lying there dead in the morgue. Then there was a sudden, subtle moment: one of his pinky toes fell off. I nearly had a heart attack.
Imagine your loved one just died at home. An investigator from the M.E.’s office shows up as they’re supposed to. But trailing them is a camera crew. You’re in the middle of this tragic ordeal and suddenly NBC News is on the scene asking if they can videotape for a report they’re producing about the Medical Examiner? How uncomfortable is that?!? We were clunky our first few tries and not surprisingly the families declined. But incredibly, we got better as time went on and families started saying yes.
So am I still afraid of death? Sure. But, that said, spending time in a morgue did convince me of one thing: I now know, unequivocally, when you’re dead, you’re really dead.