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Speaking for the Dead

A Denver coroner's investigator tracks down the families of the forgotten.

1. BORN ON THE MOON

On mourra seul, Pascal wrote. We shall die alone. But some die more alone than others.

In Denver, if you die unexpectedly, unattended by doctors or relatives, your death becomes a matter for inquiry by the Office of the Medical Examiner. And if you manage to die truly alone -- on the streets or under a bridge, without wallet or address book, without a single mourner or anyone to explain how you got to your lonely end -- then you become a special kind of problem.

You become the kind of problem that Tracey Balbin regards as a personal challenge.

Tactful yet relentless, Balbin is one of seven investigators in the Denver coroner's office. The group looks into more than 5,000 deaths a year, helping the medical examiners who certify the cause and manner of death -- much like the begoggled, latex-gloved sleuths on CSIand its endless spinoffs. But the job also involves identifying the dead and notifying next of kin, a process that's not always as straightforward as it sounds -- particularly in cases where family ties have been severed for decades. While the TV dramas focus on the whiz-bang technology involved in figuring out how someone died, shamelessly exaggerating the role of carpet-fiber analysis and luminol spritzing, Balbin and her colleagues often find themselves unraveling the mystery of how someone lived.

"Usually we can get the next-of-kin notification done fairly quickly," Balbin says. "But we've had cases that span years."

Only certain types of deaths are required to be reported to the coroner. Accidents. Suicides. Homicides. Deaths in the operating room, the ER, in jail or prison. Sudden death, or circumstances that suggest foul play or a possible public-health risk. Most of the reports are phoned in and turn out to be routine. But that still leaves around 800 "scene deaths" a year, in which the subject expired without an attending physician. And in about a quarter of those, Balbin estimates, there's some snag in finding the next of kin.

"In most cases, it's not an issue," she says. "There's family present at the hospital, the nursing home, the residence. Or if they weren't present, somebody has called them before we even get there. But then you get the people that no one knows. It's like they were born on the moon."

Finding the estranged families of even the most anonymous dead is one of Balbin's true talents as an investigator. Co-workers say she has a special gift for the task. This is not something she readily acknowledges; the 38-year-old mother of two would rather talk about teamwork, everybody doing their share, that kind of thing. But it's clear that she cares deeply about this part of her work. Over the past nine years, she's spent months chasing bare leads and cracking cases that seemed unsolvable.

"You get attached to your cases," she says. "It drives you crazy if you can't tie it up. I really do enjoy doing it, and if you enjoy doing something, you're probably going to be good at it. Maybe I've developed a flair for it, but it's a basic part of our job. The ability to track people, dead or alive, is a pretty good skill to learn."

Balbin can tick off a fistful of practical reasons why finding the next of kin is important. The investigators may need family to make a positive identification of the body, to fill in gaps in the medical history or to track down dental records. Although her office doesn't need permission from surviving relatives to conduct an autopsy, some notification on that point is considered a courtesy. And then there's the matter of funeral arrangements; the city can arrange for burial, but not cremation, without written authorization.

Yet there is another reason, a matter of policy and personal belief, that has helped fuel Balbin's determination. Families deserve to know, she says. They should hear about a death from someone in an official capacity as quickly as possible, before the media gets hold of it. They should have an opportunity to make their own arrangements for the deceased.

"We probably don't have a hard-core obligation under the law to make notification in every case, but we consider it a moral responsibility," says Balbin's supervisor, chief investigator Don Bell. "It can be the biggest holdup to closing a case, but we consider it as important as our other functions."

"There's no good way to tell someone that a loved one is dead," Balbin adds. "But everyone deserves to be notified."

The people Balbin finds offer every imaginable response to the news she brings, from the hysterical to the supremely indifferent. Some scream and curse and drop the phone. Or they say, "He's dead? So what? Why are you calling me?" Some have questions, endless questions. Others are just grateful for closure, relieved that the fractured story of a wayward father or sister or son finally has an end.

Balbin doesn't know what to expect when she makes the call. She's just doing her job. She speaks for the long gone and vanished. Even they have people, and their people deserve to know.

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