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Den Mother to the Dead

Roberta Geiselhart’s job is to investigate unexplained deaths. But her passion is to transform how the living deal with dying.

Den Mother to the Dead
Photo by Jonathan Chapman

(page 1 of 4)

THE FIRST few months that Roberta Geiselhart worked for the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office, every day was a test. Part of the reason was the steep learning curve; her job, as a death investigator, was to show up at the scenes of violent or unexplained deaths after the police to collect forensic evidence (and the deceased’s remains). But the other reason was the hazing. Back then, investigators tended to be of a type: Men, of course, and usually a certain kind of man—ex-cops with iron stomachs and jaundiced eyes.

As a woman and a former ICU nurse, Geiselhart was something of a novelty in this world. When she reported to one her first calls, in fact—someone driving the wrong way on Interstate 394 had caused a collision—a Wayzata cop attempted to chase her off. He thought she was a gawker.

Later, in 1987, on her first really difficult investigation, Geiselhart was called to retrieve the body of a drug-addled man who’d hurled himself down a garbage chute at one of the high-rise apartment buildings in Minneapolis’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

At the time, Geiselhart was 29, a transplant from a small town in Wisconsin, with two young kids and a marriage that was falling apart. It was an atypical resumé for someone responsible for sorting out the details of death.

“What the hell?” cackled a veteran Minneapolis detective as she arrived on scene. “Now they’re sending us suburban housewives?”

The cop, wanting to test her, figured there was no way she would, or could, heft the body out of the trash on her own. “He’s in the dumpster,” the cop told her, “and if you think I’m going to get in there and get him, you’re mistaken.”

“No,” Geiselhart replied coolly. “I think that’s my job.”

Then, she hiked up her dress and climbed into the dumpster.

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office occupies a nondescript beige building in the shadow of the Metrodome. There’s a suite of first-floor offices decorated with cheery window clings that someone changes with the seasons. In the back of the building sits a ramp leading to an unmarked garage—a necessity for moving bodies with a respectful level of discretion.

Inside, there are two autopsy rooms: a large one with four tables, and a smaller one for examining severely decomposed bodies. Dubbed, predictably, the “stinker room,” the latter is equipped with special filters to reduce the stench and to safely deal with bioterrorism threats such as anthrax. The only disease the morgue can’t handle is Mad Cow; those cases are sent to the University of Minnesota.

Now chief of investigations, Geiselhart occupies an office wedged into a corner of the basement. There’s a bookshelf crammed with three-ring binders, technical manuals, and two yellowed copies of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying. On top of the shelves sit several antique bottles of codeine and an assortment of family photos in beach-themed frames. A bowl on her desk holds a Ziploc bag of shotgun shells, stacks of correspondence, and a laptop sporting a bumper sticker: “I like poetry, long walks on the beach, and poking dead things with a stick.” The place is about as glamorous as a storage closet on CSI.

Known as “Bertie” to her friends, Geiselhart has large friendly eyes, dark, chin-length hair, and a voice that changes little in inflection and delivery whether she’s talking about her neighbors or explaining how tough it is to get the stench of decomposing bodies out of wool.

Most of the 10,000 or so deaths that occur in Hennepin County each year are natural, which means the deceased’s physician can sign the death certificate. But about 1,500 cases each year—accidents, homicides, suicides, or unexplained natural deaths—require the Medical Examiner to gather information to establish the cause of death before issuing a death certificate. About half of these cases require the ME’s pathologists to perform an autopsy. About 50 of those become the subject of criminal court cases.

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