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Death takes up space — something Minneapolis doesn’t have enough of

Hannah Jones

Hannah Jones

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office is surrounded on all sides by life. Loud, thrashing, messy life.

On one end, there’s the county medical center, where doctors and nurses toil day and night to preserve precious years—to put off the inevitable. There’s the light rail, furiously churning to convey the living to wherever they need to be, and the Juvenile Justice Center, a place meant to put young people on track to a longer, more lawful future. And just outside the front door, there’s U.S. Bank Stadium, possibly the biggest distraction from death the city has.

As long as there are people dying, the office is open: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Chief medical examiner Andrew Baker jokes softly than there will always be a market for what they have to offer. He and his staff handle about 7,000 deaths a year.

Not just any deaths. Their purview is essentially all deaths that occur outside of a hospital. They see to the car crashes, the suicides. The 40-year-old who drops dead on the treadmill, the woman who falls down a flight of stairs. The swelling number of drug overdoses.

MEs end up performing autopsies on roughly 1,300 bodies a year, in a white, seamless room below ground level. It’s full of gleaming equipment: shining metal tables, large sinks, hanging scales like you’d find at a deli counter. There’s a drain in the floor to make cleanup easier, and speakers, so the examiners can listen to music while they work. Baker—a little sheepishly—admits that he loves show tunes.

All of this is done in the office’s 20,000 square feet of usable square footage, which was originally intended for food service, not examining the dead. There was a time when it was enough. That time is nearing its end.

Everywhere, there are the telltale signs of overcrowding. The coolers, where corpses wait with tags tied to their graying big toes, are often full to capacity, and emit a smell of decay—at once putrid and strangely meaty. Staff usually end up turning autopsy tables midway through the day to get through their caseload. Meanwhile, there’s barely enough office space for the living.

And it gets worse. Imagine, Baker says, having to hurry to a crime scene in downtown rush-hour traffic. Imagine getting to the office on game day to pick up a deceased loved one’s keys. Parking in the hinterlands, pushing past the howling crowds of purple-clad revelers. Or looking out the window, trying to wrap your mind around your son’s overdose... and staring into the unblinking red eyes of the dragon on the Viking ship.

Thousands of happy city-dwellers pass their building without a second glance, but the people who have been inside, Baker says—the ones who have been touched by death and its attendants—never forget.

Because we could not stop for death

The 2018 Super Bowl descended upon the Twin Cities like a hurricane. And like a city bracing for a storm, the staff of the medical examiner’s office surveyed the incoming calamity and knew they had to get out.

They spent almost a year and a half planning. As the frigid January days waned into February, they picked up a stash of equipment stored at the airport and made the 20-mile drive to Savage. There, in a gray, warren-like business park by Highway 13, was Metro First Call: a combination body removal, storage, and embalming facility. This would be their home until the storm passed, and they were happy to have it.

But it was cramped, sharing the facility with Metro’s employees and stiff clients. There were boxes sketched out in blue tape to demarcate areas restricted to sterilized autopsy environments. Coolers, stationed in the same room as the cremation machines, had to be monitored constantly to ensure they maintained a proper temperature.

Then, there were the bodies: 16 souls waiting for autopsies while the Philadelphia Eagles waited to crush the New England Patriots. Some could be stored in Metro’s cooler. The rest had to stay in a refrigerated trailer parked outside. Staff made rounds to be sure none disappeared.

Crowds cheered. Footballs flew through the air. Justin Timberlake hammed it up in camo. Everything was champagne and Gatorade and confetti. And then, after the trophy was won and the spectators had fled, everyone bundled up and carried their operations north again.

It went without saying: They couldn’t keep this up. Their job is not a thing that can be shuffled around every time things get a little too exciting in Minneapolis.

So they’re leaving. This time, for good.

Resting in peace

The new Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office planned for Minnetonka isn’t supposed to be built until 2021, but its promise looms large: Baker suspects it’s one of the biggest draws for new recruits. Few medical examiners get the chance to work in such a spacious, state-of-the-art facility.

The new home will have everything they currently lack: ample parking, a straight shot to major highways, and over 40,000 extra square feet. (Finding that much county-owned land was just short of a miracle.)

It means Minneapolis will lose what so many of its residents didn’t even know it had. So often, death and its trappings are pushed to the perimeters of life. We burn it, bury it, put off planning for it. We keep it in gray, nondescript buildings and force it to move when there’s a big football game happening. But like death, the examiners will keep doing their quiet work.

City folk may catch Baker on the nights he goes out to the theater, which he finds is the best way to escape after an especially hard day. A day where there’s another overdose, or a suicide, or an abused child who didn’t quite make it. Even those who are the most intimate with death sometimes have to put it aside. 

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