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.

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.

 

As the supervisor of 14 investigators, Geiselhart has a hand in virtually every one of those cases. While the details vary, the bulk of her staff’s work involves collecting remains, identifying the deceased, tracking down next of kin, and gathering information that the pathologists need to make their determinations. Often enough, this process is straightforward. But the cases that resist resolution can be very complicated, and investigators often rely on a roster of specialists to help: dentists, sketch artists, facial reconstruction experts, anthropologists, and even entomologists.

Formally, Geiselhart’s job is to nail down the details associated with death. To hike up her skirt and climb into a dumpster, if need be. But what has made Geiselhart a pioneer in her field is that she is equally passionate about helping the living. When she became an investigator, most in the business thought what they did was too gruesome for the general public to acknowledge, let alone embrace. Everyone was better off if pastors, therapists, and funeral directors took care of the living; pathologists and death investigators should stick to the cadavers.

Geiselhart wanted to do things differently. As a former nurse, she knew that those who’ve lost a loved one suddenly or violently can’t begin to heal until they have a full understanding of what happened. It bothered her that most coroners and medical examiners usually spent little time with bereaved families. Geiselhart didn’t just want to attend to the dead; she wanted to nurse the survivors, too.

The first thing Geiselhart does when she gets to work each day is review open cases. The top page on each file is referred to as the pumpkin sheet, due to its color, and includes a checklist about the deceased’s identity. Subsequent pages contain more detail and space for the ME’s forensic pathologists to scribble questions and requests.

The investigators share the basement with equipment for processing cadavers and evidence. There are two coolers: one for tissue samples, and another for bodies, which lie on large wheeled carts called body pans, not in drawers (as on TV). There are freezers for more samples and rooms where tissue preserved in formalin, the aqueous form of formaldehyde, is stored in specially vented drawers (formalin is carcinogenic—and smells horrible). There’s an X-ray machine and, for reference, a model skeleton named Slim.

Throughout the day an intercom periodically crackles to report a death that has to be processed. The investigators’ desks are arrayed around a big lazy Susan where the pumpkin files sit. When an investigator’s shift ends, another picks up where they left off. When every box on the pumpkin sheet is checked and every request for information met, one of the office’s pathologists issues a death certificate. The investigators then call the next of kin and talk them through the findings.

Many cases are closed long before Geiselhart and her staff have their last contact with grieving relatives. Sometimes years after their loved one has died, people call with questions. Some need to know the manner of death; they couldn’t stomach hearing about the details at the time. Many are mourning a suicide—or resisting the notion that the person they knew would take such action. “There are people who just are stuck,” explains Geiselhart.

Often, people call in the middle of the night. They might be reading the autopsy report—usually not for the first time. “People don’t realize when we talk to them how different their lives are going to be. Months later it hits them,” says Geiselhart. “I say, ‘This may not be the time, but keep this number handy and call when it is.’”

The job is a lot more complicated than it was when Geiselhart started. Better forensics mean better information, but it also means more possible routes of investigation. The ongoing influx of immigrants into Minnesota means accommodating the death rituals of numerous cultures. Most problematic, people are more transient, which makes it harder to locate families.

On a recent afternoon, Geiselhart’s desk held several puzzles, one of which involved a tissue-sample collection kit from a private lab. The lab was trying to determine paternity so a dead man’s unrecognized child could draw on his Social Security. Normally all the ME’s office needs to do this is a $75 fee, but the lab wouldn’t process the sample without the dead man’s signature. “Now how’m I supposed to get that?” Geiselhart said without a hint of sarcasm.

Geiselhart has managed to survive in such a macabre atmosphere because of her high tolerance for the grisly and her low tolerance for boredom. She grew up the youngest of five in a working-class family in Merrill, Wisconsin, about 20 miles north of Wausau. In the third grade, she came down with rheumatic fever and had to spend two years at home. Her mother had long been captivated by educator Maria Montessori’s theories and encouraged Geiselhart to indulge her curiosities. She still has a restless intellect as an adult, and unwinds by reading stories about medical mysteries, bioethical dilemmas, and people who endured dramatic ordeals.

To Geiselhart, every case holds mysteries. She has a photographic memory: Even years after a case closes, it’s rare for her to have to consult a file to recall the deceased when questions come up. “There’s some unique stuff in everybody’s death,” she says.

Because few people want such a morbid job—and because death investigators have to know a lot about myriad medical and technical issues—Geiselhart has a hard time finding good candidates to fill open slots. Lots of people who try it don’t last long. “It requires an intangible quality,” says Milwaukee County medical examiner Jeff Jentzen, who hired Geiselhart when he was the Hennepin County ME.

 

Geiselhart’s team of investigators is a typically mixed lot. Jackie Soucek, a senior investigator, took a job as an autopsy assistant while studying microbiology. “Bertie kept saying, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to be an investigator? You’re such a people person. I can see you out talking to families,’” says Soucek. She spent two years helping perform autopsies before concluding Geiselhart was right.

Until recently, there wasn’t even consensus as to what investigators should know or how they should do their jobs. But in 1994, Jentzen put together a task force to create consistent standards for the field. He invited Geiselhart and a few other top investigators from around the country to Milwaukee. The task force met periodically over the course of a year. At the end, the National Institutes of Justice, a federal agency, threw its support behind the effort in 1997, and the first set of national standards for death investigators was issued and a profession formally born. The following year, Geiselhart passed the test developed by the brand-new American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators. Today, she’s the group’s president.

Her exposure to how other death investigators around the country work has had an effect at home. In 1991, Geiselhart help with the aftermath of the Sioux City plane crash. When she got home, she looked into Minnesota’s plan for handling mass casualties. The idea was to set up a temporary morgue in an ice arena, which Geiselhart knew right away wouldn’t work. Instead, she got the Hennepin County ME’s office and the Metropolitan Airports Commission to develop a plan for a temporary morgue in the building where snow-removal equipment is kept at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Before the current facility was remodeled eight years ago, the Hennepin County morgue was located in the basement of the Hennepin County Medical Center. Investigators had to unload bodies on Chicago Avenue and wheel them into the building past whomever was there, whether it be unsuspecting pedestrians, Vikings fans, or angry family members who had followed the investigators back from a crime scene.

The setup was terrible, but the antiquated building was only one of the barriers Geiselhart was determined to overcome. She wanted to make the facility more accommodating to the living. But many of those who work closely with the dead find the living—whom they usually encounter in grief and despair—problematic.

For years, the ME’s staff routinely told next of kin not to come to the office when a body was delivered. There was no private place to show families the remains, they explained. In those rare cases where an exception was made, the staff taped a “Do Not Use” sign on the elevator, rolled the body into the car, and opened the doors when the family was ready to take a look.

Geiselhart suspected many of her co-workers were secretly relieved to have the shoddy facility as an excuse to keep families of the deceased at bay. “Pathologists did not want to deal with the emotions, with the tears, the heartbreak,” says Janis Amatuzio, the medical examiner for eight Minnesota counties, including Anoka. “It’s easier to let the funeral director handle the grief. It’s much easier to concentrate on the science.”

Such attitudes were hardly unusual. Even today, many ME staffs simply show photos of the deceased to survivors, sometimes on a computer screen. This is not without reason: Some cases can be gruesome, and many people prefer to wait to see the remains until a funeral home has taken care of the blood or other visible signs of a violent or premature death. But there are exceptions, and Geiselhart feels strongly that some people—parents who’ve lost a child, in particular—deserve a dignified space to see and touch the loved one they had lost. When the county started planning the new facility, Geiselhart asked for a viewing room. “I kept saying, ‘I need a family room,’” she recalls. “They kept saying, ‘Why, why, why?’”

Geiselhart was too stubborn and opinionated to give up easily, though. She invited Linda Cherek, a St. Paul grief counselor, to talk to the staff about her experience. In September 1993, Cherek’s daughter Kristen died unexpectedly of a heart condition in her dorm at Marquette University in Wisconsin. As a professional who regularly dealt with death and grief, Cherek felt that it was important for her to see Kristen’s body.

Despite Cherek’s qualifications (not to mention the fact that her husband is a cemetery director), the ME’s staff in Milwaukee was reluctant to provide access. Finally, a cousin who worked for the county wangled an exception. When Cherek put her hand on Kristen’s cheek, it finally made her daughter’s death real. “I needed to physically touch her,” she says. “She was still soft, but she was cold.”

Cherek told the Hennepin County ME staff that discouraging people from viewing a body sends an unhealthy signal. It says, in effect, “This is too awful to actually acknowledge. This is too much for you to handle.” And that, Cherek says, isn’t fair to families.

The lobbying proved persuasive. Geiselhart eventually got her family room. It’s located on the first floor of the office, adjacent to the lobby. Because families can’t have physical contact with remains that contain evidence of a crime, however, there’s a second room where a family can view the body through a window.

Getting the room was only the first battle for Geiselhart, though. She also wanted a door next to the window so people could enter and touch the body if they wanted. That was followed by a fight over a curtain that hangs on a U-shaped track on the other side of the window that allows staffers to show someone’s head while screening off the rest of the body, in case it’s disfigured. Geiselhart still thinks the second curtain is stupid: It comes down from the ceiling only halfway but it’s still too long; worse, unlike the neutral drapery covering the window (or the sheet that could be used to drape a torso), it’s funereal red velvet. She’s equally offended by the box of rubber gloves mounted on the wall. “You don’t touch your husband with gloves on,” she says. “You don’t touch your baby with gloves.”

 

The county interior decorator who furnished the space insisted on a couch with plasticized purple upholstery. “She was afraid people were going to get sick on it,” Geiselhart recalls. “I said, ‘No, they’re just going to cry.’” Geiselhart also wanted a rocking chair, but the designer argued that it wasn’t appropriate for a place of business. Geiselhart found some money and went to JCPenney herself. “When did you ever see a baby and not want to rock it?” she says.

Amatuzio, for one, was so impressed with Hennepin County’s family room that when plans were drawn up for a new Anoka County morgue in Ramsey, she made sure that one was incorporated into the design.

For all the struggle that went into the creation and furnishing of the family room, however, it isn’t used very often. Most of the time, funeral directors really are better positioned to help people through their shock, loss, and confusion. Unlike the investigators, their job is to tend to the bereaved. Funeral homes are set up to allow people as much time and privacy as they need to seek answers and guidance.

Geiselhart’s staff doesn’t exactly encourage families to come to the morgue. “It can be heart-wrenching to show a body, emotionally wrenching,” she says. “It all depends on the level of comfort you’re at.” When a death is violent, survivors are often enraged. And because the investigators can’t collect a body until police are done with a scene, relatives sometimes think they’re slow to respond and react angrily.

Investigators have to deal with witnessing those emotions day in and day out. At the scene of a death, survivors’ despair can be overwhelming, says Milwaukee’s Jentzen. “It’s not filtered by the news media, it’s just raw pain,” he says. “And you can sympathize, but you can’t really empathize.”

The grind takes its toll on investigators. Sometimes talking about it only magnifies its enormity. Let it get big enough, and it becomes impossible to leave work at work. “People who come back from wars can talk about the larger things, like invasions and air strikes,” says Jentzen. “But when it comes down to talking about the smaller stuff, what they do and their emotions, they can’t talk about it.” In social settings like parties, “Most of us either won’t say what we do or we’ll lie about it,” says Shawn Wilson, an investigator who works with Geiselhart. “People want to hear everything.” And there are some cases that are just too hard to talk about, even at the office. Battered children, for instance. When those cases come through, says Geiselhart, “We’re a little quieter—and we swear a lot.”

Geiselhart has a knack for knowing when someone is struggling, according to her staff, and she often tries to draw people out. “Sometimes I’ll start something with someone because I know they’re having a hard time,” Geiselhart says. “We have two staff members with suicides in the family. If I know they’re out at a hanging or something, I’ll go check on them and say, ‘I’m sorry that had to happen.’”

Indeed, after two decades on the job, Geiselhart knows that professionals who deal with sudden, brutal, and premature deaths have ways of dealing with what they see. Some people’s coping mechanisms are obvious, like alcohol or prayer, but others are unexpected: The cop who razzed her about her dress when she was a rookie cultivates roses. “I am sure that everyone who works in stuff like this for any time has their way of healing,” Geiselhart says.

She still can’t quite articulate hers, why she is so driven to find answers about the dead—and to provide some modicum of comfort and understanding for those they leave behind. Ask how she copes and you get sincere replies—“Take a walk” or “paint”—but also the sense that there’s no good answer to that question, except to make the most of the here and now. “I’ve had a lot of bumps in my road of life, but in the end, if I’m still on this side of the cooler, it’s not a bad day and it can get better,” she says. “This job teaches you how to live—I mean really, really live. It boils down to choices: You can be miserable, or happy/miserable/happy. What’s it gonna be?”

The first crime scene that really got to Geiselhart was the 1987 murder of a 30-year-old Bloomington woman and her 2-year-old daughter. Debora Ritacco, a Pillsbury employee, had been stabbed 106 times, her daughter, Andria, 56 times.

The killer, Debora’s estranged boyfriend, had left a trail of blood leading through the apartment and out into the snow.

It wasn’t the first gory scene Geiselhart had worked—not even the first that day. But Geiselhart has a natural tendency to associate the details at crime scenes—car seats in crushed vehicles, baby bottles—with the quotidian rhythms of the victims’ lives. As she carried Andria’s tiny body out of the building, she bumped her toe against a child’s toy, a Fisher-Price Chime Ball. It jangled, and the flash of recognition hit Geiselhart so hard she had to stop and set the body down. Her daughter, who was the same age as Andria, had the same toy.

It was the kind of experience that settles any doubts as to whether a person is cut out to be a death investigator. Lots of people think working crime scenes would be an interesting job. Many quit after just a few days or months. The ones who commit to doing the work—day after day, year after year—have to find some way to grapple with the grief and grimness that accompany the profession.

When Geiselhart got home that night, she asked her husband to get rid of their daughter’s chime ball. Later, she placed a pair of small porcelain angels in her garden: a memorial to Debora and Andria. She couldn’t change what had happened to them, or to any of the other dead people whose last chapters she had to examine. But she could make sure that their deaths were noted, that their departure from this world was remembered with respect. “I am still a nurse,” she says. “I just nurse dead people.”

Beth Hawkins is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.

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