This Sunday’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver focused on death investigations. While portrayed glamorously on television, the field is suffering. Over half a million bodies end up being investigated by coroners and medical examiners. Oliver emphasized the importance of their jobs to his audience: “A death certificate isn’t like a degree from USC. It actually means something.”
The field helps to inform the public how people are killed, identify new trends in unnatural deaths such as substance abuse, defective products and the spread of infectious diseases. But many of the facilities occupied by death investigators are old and in disrepair. The US government gives little to no funding to medical examiners or coroner’s offices. One medical examiner complained he once worked in an office where he had only one light over his examining table. “That is quite frankly too spooky. If I’ve learned anything from horror movies, it is that when you see a room containing one dead person, one alive person and one light bulb, that’s a room that’s about to contain two dead people and one light bulb!” Oliver commented.
The Last Week Tonight host explained the difference between medical examiners and coroners, the latter accounting for two-thirds of the country’s death investigators. While Though the two have similar jobs, medical examiners are doctors while coroners are not required to be medically trained at all and sometimes must be elected. The lack of qualifications often leads to conflicts of interest and misuses of power, to the point where medical organizations have called for the abolition of the coroner system since 1857.
But Oliver pointed out that not even this might be enough to stop death investigators’ mistakes and misuses of power. In one 20/20 interview clip, John Quinones asked a medical examiner if his dog had eaten a kidney and a spleen from a body. The medical examiner fell silent. “I know he’s not used to dealing with the living but playing dead is just not a legitimate move here!”
Medical examiner’s offices are not only underfunded but those who work there also make less than in other facilities. According to an August 2018 article, there are only 500 forensic pathologists practicing in the entire US. Oliver advised his audience that in some states, such as understaffed New Jersey, it might be more beneficial to “write down whatever is killing you on a Post-it note and stick it to your chest”. He joked: “You’d really be doing the overstretched investigators a solid.”
Because of the staff shortage, some states have outsourced to private companies, some of which may be mishandling investigations. Oliver highlighted one case in Missouri and Kansas where the states outsourced to a man who has admitted to having no medical training, Shawn Parcells, who is accused of performing illegal autopsies, lying about his credentials, botching murder investigations and improperly storing bodies and fluids.
After ripping down Parcells’ “tricked-out death hutch”, which the host also called a “grifters’ back-alley autopsy shanty”, Oliver then pivoted to a possible solution of the problem. “Well, in an ideal world, no one would die. I’m certainly never going to and at the risk of sounding too prescriptive, I don’t think you should either. But in a slightly less ideal world, we would phase out coroner’s offices and replace them with medical examiners. You know, the thing that experts are arguing for since the 1800s and we would have autopsies performed or supervised by board-certified forensic pathologists …”
He advocated incentivizing medical examiners as well as proper funding, arguing this plan would only cost $3.75 a person a year. “That is less than the amount of money that we inadvertently annually donate to our fucking couch cushions!” the host exclaimed. “Look, I know this issue is tempting to ignore. It combines two things that people hate thinking about the most: death and municipal funding.”
The segment concluded by enlisting the help of Glenn Close and Tracy Morgan to insist that medical examiners need more funding so that people and their organs are not desecrated, with Morgan saying: “When my time does come, I don’t want to end up in a basement dungeon on some dude’s autopsy table, standing over me with a butter knife and a dull spoon and an ice cream scooper.”