“You work a lot more with live people than you do with dead people.”
That’s how Makayla Morris describes her internship with the Marion County Coroner’s Office. Morris spent the summer there and is now joining their ranks as a deputy coroner after she was offered a position before she even has her diploma in hand.
Morris came to IUPUI as a forensics major, but quickly realized living in a lab wasn’t what she wanted. That’s when she found SPEA’s criminal justice degree.
“I liked that you got a lot of hands-on experience in SPEA,” she says. “Criminal justice courses help you learn how to deal with people in real-life situations rather than just working with specimens in the lab.”
Morris switched majors, keeping forensics as her minor. It was in a forensics class that a deputy coroner came to speak to students about the job and the internship opportunities available to all students.
“Before that, I thought I wanted to work crime scenes,” she says. “Then I heard the deputy coroner describe what they do and knew that was what I had been looking for.”
So what does a deputy coroner do?
Morris points out a key difference: pathologists perform autopsies, while coroners typically handle death scenes and families.
“People don’t think that the coroner’s office deals with people, but that’s a big portion of what we do,” Morris says. “If the police can’t find a relative, we have to do it. We are required to have a positive ID for the decedent. Sometimes the only way to do that is to track down next of kin.”
That search requires critical thinking skills. Morris says they often have to think outside of the box, following a trail of breadcrumbs to find a relative. She points back to a class she took with SPEA’s Kenna Quinet that helped her hone her research skills.
“Kenna’s course was helpful because it gave me practical experience to work on research,” she says. “You’re searching for people involved with mass murders from decades ago. It’s hard to track down information when you’re talking about something that happened in the 1970s, but Kenna showed us how to do that.”
Morris says her training in SPEA not only helped her develop research and critical thinking skills, but also provided a foundation for working with diverse populations.
“Everyone you deal with on this job is different,” she says. “No family is going to respond in the same way when you tell them their loved one has passed. Some may scream at you, others may be very quiet. SPEA fosters conversations between differing viewpoints and helps prepare you to handle similar situations in the real world.”
Morris’ three months with the coroner’s office were broken up into three phases: office work, shadowing deputies and pathologists, and working on the scene of death investigations.
The final phase was when Morris hit her stride. She was taking pictures at the scene, gathering notes from police, and working with families.
“It’s interesting to be on the scene because you’re doing something that matters so much,” she says. “You’re helping to provide answers to a family about what happened to their loved one.”
Yet Morris acknowledges this job isn’t for everyone. There are challenging times in this field.
“I’ve been on a case where we had to notify a father that his young son had passed away,” she recalls. “That’s hard and something that will never get easier.”
“You’re going to see difficult things,” she adds. “You’re going to see infants, toddlers, and people your age who look like you. Sometimes you go to a scene thinking you’ll be fine but you aren’t. And that’s okay. You need to learn what you can handle.”
Learning to manage those emotions is a key part of the job. Morris says the deputy coroners helped students learn how to distance themselves from the cases, striking a balance between empathy and detachment.
“You cannot take these cases home with you,” she says. “When you’re working with a family, you want to put yourself in their shoes a bit but you can’t get so attached to a case that it takes you down, too. You have to be able to leave work at work.”
That work may give some students pause. Dealing with death up-close can bring on a wide array of emotions, especially when it comes to autopsies and processing a scene.
“You just have to think about an autopsy like a medical procedure,” she says. “The pathologists are trying to answer specific questions by taking a scientific approach. When you’re on the scene, you’re trying to do the same thing.”
This experience solidified future plans for Morris providing a new post-graduation path. Following the summer internship program, the coroner’s office created part-time deputy coroner positions to help ease the workload. They interviewed several interns and hired two, including Morris. She’ll get to work for the office part time while going to school full time.
And while that next step isn’t guaranteed to anyone, Morris says she would encourage other students to take advantage of this unique internship opportunity, even if they have hesitations about the day-to-day work.
“I went into this experience not knowing what I was getting into,” she says. “It takes a special person to deal with death all day. But even if you’re squeamish, try it. You may not be as scared as you thought you would be.”