Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton said he vividly remembers the first time he had to notify a family of the death of loved ones.
After a car crash took the lives of three women, Carlton had to break the news to the families. His first stop was at the home of a 20-year-old woman to speak with her husband. The couple just had a child, he said.
“It was challenging to talk to her husband,” he said. “They had only been married for a short period of time. There is nothing that could be more life-changing than that. Not only has the guy lost his wife, he has to raise a baby by himself.”
Though it happened more than 15 years ago, Carlton said the memory still haunts him today. But as coroner, he said notifying the family is part of his job.
“It’s not an easy thing,” he said. “We take that challenge on willingly.”
The responsibility of notifying next of kin most often falls to the coroner, Columbia County Deputy Coroner Harriett Garrison said. Local law enforcement will contact the coroner’s office to advise it that a death has occurred, then the coroner must relay that information to the family, she said.
“We all work together,” she explained. “If there is a death in Richmond County for someone who lives in Columbia County, (the Columbia County Coroner’s Office) will make the notification.”
Carlton said this allows coroners to keep the focus on the county they serve.
Richmond County Chief Deputy Coroner Mark Bowen said notifications are made in a personal visit to the home.
“We want to make that eye-to-eye contact and be with them in the first moments,” he said. “It’s very hard. No two notifications are the same.”
On July 28, Bowen made that contact with the mother of one of the victims in a Hephzibah motorcycle crash that claimed the lives of two people and injured a third.
With the wrecked motorcycle to his back, Bowen placed his hand on the shoulder of the grieving mother to comfort her, flanked on both sides by Richmond County sheriff’s deputies.
Only when other family members arrived to stand by the mother’s side did Bowen leave the scene.
Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten, who has worked in the coroner’s office for more than 30 years, said that’s just protocol.
“Until they get a friend or family there, me and my deputies will stay there until someone gets there that can be with them,” he said. “You want to be there to show compassion. Your biggest job is to help the family. Get them through this death thing.”
Sometimes, though, finding the next of kin isn’t easy.
Carlton said in a recent case it took the coroner’s office more than eight hours to contact the next of kin. He estimates that it can take from a few hours to more than 32 before a family member can be reached.
After looking at recent cases, Tuten found that it takes on average about 6½ hours before next of kin can be identified.
“We’re getting to cases where people are so mobile and move so often that they lose contact,” he said. “They lose who to contact.”
But the search has to start somewhere, and Carlton said it often begins by asking one question: What do we know?
“We start off with what we know,” he said. “We’ll go to the home of the victim to see if anyone is there. If there isn’t anyone, we’ll try to speak with neighbors to see if they knew the victim.”
Items such as wallets and cellphones are the most valuable tools in the beginning stages, he said.
Sometimes, more extreme measures must be taken. The recent passing of a Veterans Affairs patient left the Richmond County Coroner’s Office with very little to work with, Tuten said. Knowing that the man had last updated his records in Altoona, Pa., Tuten said his office placed an ad in the local paper seeking relatives.
No one responded, and the man was given a pauper’s burial.
When speaking with the families, Garrison said the coroner will try to answer all the questions he can about what happened. The on-call coroner will provide the families a list of area funeral homes to review.
The coroner’s office will then allow the family time to grieve before arrangements are made.
“You try to show the most dignity and respect for family that you can,” she said. “You have to put yourself in their place.”
Both Carlton and Bowen said they think of what to say on the way to the home of the victim’s family.
“I talk to God on the way and ask for him to give me the words to say to these folks,” Carlton said. “We’re going to make a life-changing impact.”
But he has learned the hard way to be as direct as possible. Dancing around the topic can confuse people, so it’s vital to get the most important information out first – the death of their family member.
Tuten said his office instructs deputy coroners to shy away from certain topics.
“Don’t ever tell them, ‘Hey, they’re in a better place,’ ” he said. “You don’t know what religion these folk are. You don’t know what they think. We shy away from that.”
Having delivered the news “more times than (he) cares to count,” Tuten said he sometimes uses the opportunity to reflect on himself.
“What if that was us,” he said. “What would we do? How would we react?”