The Coroner’s Song

The biographer and the coroner are kindred spirits.

They both toil in an environment of doubt and uncertainty. Both are revelators. The biographer shares with the profession of the coroner the desire to sound out that which is inaudible, to record the music of a dissonant composition that has been spontaneously improvised, but not apprehended by the naked ear. The coroner is preoccupied with the staccato note of an uncertain death, the biographer with the motivic force of life.

Death is important to the biographer, because it brings discipline to the study of a life, dividing it into segments, as does the composer a piece of music into bars and movements. And it is the biographer’s task to faithfully recreate the elements of that composition, its melody, harmony and rhythm, regardless of one’s musical predilection.

If life is fascinating to the coroner, it is only so because of the desire to understand why it ceased in the manner that it did. It is the coroner’s devout duty to listen, again and again and again, to the attack of the final note, it’s rate of decay, what qualities gave it its pitch, timbre, and most crucially the sequence of notes that preceded it and the fashion in which they were executed.

Viewed in isolation, the role of the coroner seems to affirm death. This seemingly bleak profession is given expression only in circumstances where life is dubiously extinguished. And yet, if successful in this solemn task, the coroner bequeathes to the biographer the greatest gift of all: the possibility of interpreting the meaning of a life. For to know how someone died provides us with myriad clues as to how they lived. Obverseley, to know how someone lives is to anticipate how they might die.

Understanding the circumstances surrounding a suspicious death, whether it is found to be natural, accidental or precipitated by foul play, can attune us to the finer points of the social and mental character of the unexamined life, and set us on a fantastic journey into both the inner world of a life and the society which played host to it.  Without this privileged knowledge, the possibility of writing a life that profoundly moves and finds resonance within us, is severely hindered; for how can one appraise the meaning of anything which has a definite beginning but no clear sense of an ending? Only genius can overcome such a grave omission, though sheer force of imagination, and even then the results are mixed and unsatisfying.

For the biographer then, the tragedy of death is not to be found in the moment of thanatos itself, but rather in those instances where the coroner returns an open verdict. ✏️

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