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Just another day in the morgue

Dr. Jim Edwards is standing beside a block of metal morgue refrigerators watching an assistant slide a white body bag out of the chilly unit.

Dr. Jim Edwards is standing beside a block of metal morgue refrigerators watching an assistant slide a white body bag out of the chilly unit.

For Edwards, the regional supervising coroner for Toronto East, being this close to a shrouded corpse is just another day at the office.

“It’s really interesting to figure out why people die,” he muses.

Along with pathologists and toxicologists, Ontario coroners play a key part in ensuring that certain deaths in the province are thoroughly examined.

“Our role is to investigate deaths, to determine the facts of that death and to determine public safety issues that arise from those deaths,” Edwards says, adding that around 25 per cent of the roughly 80,000 deaths in Ontario last year were investigated by coroners.

Though coroners are automatically called in when a death occurs during childbirth or in custody, depending on the incident they can also be summoned by doctors, police or even members of the public.

“We investigate all unnatural deaths and natural deaths that are considered to be unexpected,” he says.

Edwards began his career in medicine as an emergency room doctor where he dealt with crime-related traumas. When a colleague described what coroner work entailed, Edwards liked what he heard and applied to become an investigating coroner.

“I just really enjoyed doing investigations,” he says. “It’s challenging and different.”

Most people who apply to be coroners in Ontario are registered physicians who want to take on the duties alongside their original practice. However, Edwards also works with coroners who have backgrounds in law and psychiatry. Once interviewed and selected to fill a vacancy at the Coroners Office, they receive additional training in the principles of death investigation.

Coroners-in-training study the principles of the Coroners Act, how to conduct autopsies, and other legal and bureaucratic aspects of the career. Upon completing the course, they work with law enforcement officials and other forensic specialists to conduct investigations.

“It shows that there is a multidisciplinary approach to death investigation,” says Edwards.

“There are a whole bunch of people interacting to get the results you need.”

These results usually take the form of public safety recommendations. By carrying out investigations and launching formal inquiries, coroners not only help solve crimes but they also help educate society about how to prevent similar deaths in the future.


“We speak for the dead to protect and change,” says Edwards.

One of the main projects Edwards has taken on as a supervising coroner involves researching how organs can be collected from corpses to use for organ donation.

“The benefit is so huge because each of these organs is going out there to a person in the community,” he says.

Even though Edwards often works 50-hour weeks, is on-call, and has been exposed to emotionally stressful cases like the SARS outbreak, he maintains that being a coroner is one of the most fascinating jobs out there.

“I enjoy my work,” he says. “Death is a fact of life. I don’t really get tired of it.”

 
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