Still Lips Still Whisper

Meet Dr. Michael Graham, the city medical examiner. He hears dead people.

A woman's dark red toenails poke out from beneath a milky plastic bag. Nearby is a large, long lump with masculine feet.

A half-filled body bag rests on a third gurney.

Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Jane Turner spent three weeks working in the Oklahoma City medical examiner's office after the Alfred P. Murrah building exploded. "It was awesome, in a bad sense, a really bad sense."
Jennifer Silverberg
Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Jane Turner spent three weeks working in the Oklahoma City medical examiner's office after the Alfred P. Murrah building exploded. "It was awesome, in a bad sense, a really bad sense."

Across the dimly lit room, a silver cart is parked next to a laundry basket. On top are rows of tightly sealed freezer bags, each one containing an organ.

The cold air swirling about doesn't chill faces locked in a vacant stare. The sickly sweet scent of mortality doesn't wrinkle their waxy noses.

It doesn't seem to bother Baxter Leisure either.

He's standing in the middle of the main cooler -- the waiting room for the newly deceased -- describing 20-year-old renovations. The changes opened up the space to accommodate more bodies and made it more energy efficient, Leisure says with a heavy South Side accent.

He consciously limits today's lesson to the room's physical changes and doesn't talk about the people lying nearby. He knows who they are and what brought them here. That's one of the first things he finds out every morning, after taking off his jacket and grabbing a cup of coffee.

But he's perfected the art of pretending not to know. Not to know how many trip tickets have been left at the morgue desk by the funeral homes that provide livery service to the medical examiner's office. Not to know which ones are adults and which ones are kids. Not to know who's been shot, stabbed, beaten or died of a drug overdose.

Well, he does know -- but showing that you know means answering questions posed by the living: gore seekers and media types who aren't part of the medical examiner's office, law enforcement or immediate family members. And Leisure's not going to give specifics.

So he pretends. And sticks to giving visitors safe descriptions of the office and his routine.

"So if I have seven or eight livery tickets, I hope to God they aren't all autopsy cases," Leisure said earlier in his office, while talking about the abstract facts and figures he compiles.

He notes that autopsies aren't performed on every body that's brought into the medical examiner's office.

"If they are, then I ask what specifically we have and they may say three homicides, a motor vehicle, and a jumper."

That would be a pretty accurate breakdown of the types of cases that come into the office. The St. Louis City Office of the Medical Examiner handles most of the metropolitan area's homicides, 138 in 2000, compared with 36 in St. Louis County, eight in St. Charles, four in Jefferson County and one in Franklin County. And the city is second in the number of accidental deaths, 293 compared with St. Louis County's 322.

County and Illinois residents don't elude the grasp of the city Office of the Medical Examiner. What matters is where people die, not where they live. So a St. Charles resident killed in an accident on Interstate 70 in the city limits is sent downtown. Someone from Illinois who dies in one of the four hospitals inside the city limits might be brought down to see Michael Graham's staff. So too, a baby living in Jefferson County who dies in the Children's Hospital on Kingshighway Boulevard.

Leisure continues the tour of the main cooler.

It is a vast open space. The floor is painted hospital green. The walls are a few shades lighter. One wall has a window that faces into a small, uncomfortable room where families gather to identify their husband, wife, son, daughter, mother or father. A few feet back from the window, inside the cooler, a faded, blue-green curtain hangs from the ceiling. A body is wheeled in between the curtain and the window, blocking a visitor's view of other dead people.

Leisure points to a wall and describes what was once there: the drawers were stacked three feet high. Like everything else in the office, they were laid out in tidy rows. But they took up valuable space. The room can now host about a 100.

There's only been one time in Leisure's memory that the room was filled to capacity -- right after it reopened, in the summer of 1980.

That summer, a deadly heat wave hit St. Louis. At the same time, the grave diggers went on strike, which meant the morgue filled up and wasn't emptied.

"Imagine every inch of that room, including the ID window, with a gurney," Leisure says, "because that's how filled it was, filled to capacity. And coupled with that, the grave diggers were on strike, so the fact that these people were dying almost literally one after the other, we couldn't turn them over."

Leisure stops and smiles sheepishly when he realizes the pun.

"We couldn't get them out of here because the funeral directors were saying 'we have no place to go.'"

Leisure is the medical examiner's administrator and the office's highest-ranking city employee. He's a fixture. Been there for more than three decades. Leisure reports to Graham, but Graham isn't on the city's payroll. All three full-time forensic pathologists, including Graham, work for St. Louis University's medical school.

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