Matt Brown

Dealing with death: A day in the life of a coroner

Matt Brown and his team of coroners are tasked to investigate all unnatural, sudden, unexplained or unattended deaths on the Island.

An elderly person has been found dead in their home by a loved one. A young woman has suffered traumatic injuries in a car accident. A man has been brought to hospital after he was found unresponsive on a city street. A young child dies at a playground from circumstances that aren’t known.

It’s another day in the life of a coroner. Whenever Matt Brown arrives for work, he’s not exactly sure how his day will unfold.

Working as the regional coroner, Brown and his team of 21 coroners are tasked to investigate all unnatural, sudden, unexplained or unattended deaths on the Island. More than 1,800 deaths are reported each year —  900 to 1,000 of those are in the capital region.

Averaging six cases a day, the coroners have to be able to think on their feet and deal with people during their darkest time. Every day they are faced with difficult conversations with families searching for answers about their loved ones death.

“I often say that as a coroner, you are dealing with people at the worst time in their lives. It doesn’t matter if their loved one is 95 years old and has lived a very great life,” said Brown, noting a coroner has to be sensitive to various cultures.

“You have the job to help them understand what took place and what’s going to happen next. When you have that conversation with them, you know that they may not hear you, they may not remember everything you said.”

When a coroner arrives at the scene of a death, first responders give them a general description about how the person was found, where they were last seen, along with any other history that may help with the investigation. The coroner examines and photographs the body, looking for any clues for the cause or manner of death in order to determine whether a postmortem exam is necessary. The majority of deaths investigated in Victoria are from natural causes.

But the cause of death isn’t always obvious, especially when a body has begun to decompose. Although it’s rare, sometimes there is no cause identified, even after an autopsy has been conducted. It’s news, said Brown, that can be difficult for a family to swallow.

“In those situations you really have to make sure you are keeping family informed on every finding and every step along the way,” he said. “You tell them after nine or 10 months I have no information, it’s devastating…It makes them angry, it makes them very sad and they can never move on.”

Brown admits the job of investigating death is difficult at times and the images he’s seen can be hard to turn off. His first case was on the Lower Mainland and involved a man found floating in the Georgia Strait. The investigation revealed the man had a history of mental health issues and jumped to his death from a nearby bridge.

Brown wasn’t impacted by the investigation emotionally, but recalls being very nervous since it was his first case. His toughest investigation (emotionally) involved the death of a young man who looked like his best friend and was around the same age. He also had the same chronic medical issue.

“When his friends and family arrived at his house, I was reminded of my friend and had to put my personal emotions aside in order to provide some information for the family and what was going to happen next,” said Brown.

“You’re providing a service to a family and if you’re able to focus on that, that does help mitigate against that emotional impact.”

The job of the coroner doesn’t just involve determining the facts and circumstances of a death, but also looking for ways to prevent similar deaths from occurring. An investigation could end with a coroner’s inquest — a formal court proceeding with a five-person jury, held to publicly review the circumstances of a death. An inquest is held when a coroner determines it would be beneficial in addressing community concern about a death, assist in finding information about the deceased or circumstance, or drawing attention to a cause of death if such awareness can prevent more in the future.

Most coroners have an investigative background, coming from careers such as policing, nursing, law, firefighting or social services. Brown, 42, spent eight years in child welfare before he became a coroner — a job he said takes a unique individual but is extremely rewarding.

“What gets me going is when things go right and a family walks away and is satisfied they have all the answers,” said Brown. “That happens more often than not. Despite your best efforts, sometimes you don’t have answers and that’s very very challenging.”