With most deaths in Polk County, coroner Melissa Britton goes on scene to investigate, ask questions and see through every angle to ensure the cause of death is properly assessed.
Britton, who served as deputy coroner from 2014 to 2016 under then-coroner Roy Harms, was elected as coroner in the Nov. 8, 2016, election. She is Polk County’s first female coroner.
According to Missouri statute 58.180, a coroner “shall be a conservator of the peace throughout his county, and shall take inquests of violent and casual deaths happening in the same, or where the body of any person coming to his death shall be discovered in his county.”
As a conservator of the peace, Britton is called on scene for “suicide, naturals, accidents and homicides,” she told the BH-FP.
But the position, which pays a $16,000 annual salary, entails more than simply going on scene to collect a body, Britton said.
Speaking with families of individuals who have died, making phone calls, filing paperwork and knowing what to look for in a corpse — the eyes, the skin, rigor mortis — are just a few examples of the job’s scope, she said.
In that scope, calls can be expected day or night, at any time.
Because of that, a day in the life of a coroner is never predictable.
“It really varies,” Britton said.
To help with the workload, Britton recently hired a deputy coroner, Tamera Allen, who may discharge all duties and exercise all powers of the coroner’s role, according to state statute 58.160 — just as she did under Harms.
When she receives a call from dispatch, Britton gets ready and goes to the scene.
Some settings of death don’t require a coroner to attend a body. Britton said with deaths at nursing homes and home hospices, she’s not dispatched because doctors are already present. But if any foul play is suspected, she would go on scene.
Once there, Britton said, she talks to law enforcement on scene, speaks with the family, takes pictures of the body and examines it to ensure no foul play is involved and “everything is adding up correctly,” she said.
“I collect all of the decedent's medicines and find out what funeral home that they want,” Britton added.
After the funeral home is decided, she usually examines the body more closely there and draws blood for toxicology, she said.
If the death appears to be an accident or something doesn’t seem to look right — including deaths that may be drug related — Britton said she may request an autopsy, which is done at Cox Hospital in Springfield.
“And then lots and lots and lots of phone calls,” she said. “And paperwork, getting medical history and talking to doctors, talking to family, emailing and faxing to people … waiting for reports to come in.”
Given the detail-oriented nature of a coroner’s work, Britton noted training and experience are important parts of her job.
With a degree in criminal justice, which she earned in 2012 from ITT Tech, Britton said she’s the type of person who wants “to know exactly” what she’s doing.
“I want to learn and train as much as I possibly can,” she said.
State statute 58.030 requires basic qualifications, stating an elected coroner must be a U.S. citizen over the age of 21, should reside within Missouri for one year and reside within and his or her elected county six months preceding the election.
Explaining the history behind the qualifications, Britton said years ago in the south, funeral home owners would take the role of county coroner because they were already attending to bodies — however, “there’s just no training in that.”
“I did a training with a medical legal death investigator, and it’s much more in-depth training on being a death investigator,” she said.
Britton previously told the BH-FP she earned her death investigator certification through the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators based in St. Louis.
Once elected, though, state statute 58.095 says coroners can have $1,000 of their salary paid if they complete at least 20 hours of classroom instruction relating to coroner’s duties each year.
If a coroner doesn’t do the job correctly, “you could possibly let homicides go to the wayside ... if you didn’t know how to investigate it properly,” she said.
Given the nature of the work, it takes a special person to be equipped for the job. One aspect, Brittonsaid, is being able to deal with the bodily elements of decomposition.
Additionally, she explained, coroners must be able to handle deaths while having control over their emotions.
She said in some situations — either from taking in deceased newborn babies or even a person whose death was expected by the family — a coroner must be strong for the family and understand what they’re going through.
As a coroner, Britton said, it’s important to be sympathetic, empathetic and caring for families “because their world has stopped at that time when they’ve lost a family member, and you’ve got to know how to handle them with grace.”