Respect, dignity, care for families new coroner’s top priorities
Kirk McKey has assumed various roles over the years —chiropractor, board member, golfer, husband and father.
In November’s general election, Moffat County voters elected him to take on a new position that sometimes constitutes three roles — doctor, detective and friend.
He was elected Moffat County Coroner.
“A coroner’s duties are to determine the cause and manner of death, to make a positive identification of the deceased and to notify the next of kin,” McKey said.
It’s an unusual, sometimes heart-wrenching job, one that most people wouldn’t want.
McKey campaigned for it.
Last year, McKey — a soft-spoken man with a hint of Southern drawl in his voice — ran unopposed in the general election.
He was sworn in Tuesday for a four-year term. He replaces Owen Grant, who was term-limited.
“I knew the county needed a coroner,” McKey said. “I did some investigating on the duties and it really interested me.”
Every year, the county coroner investigates an average of 50 deaths. McKey enters the position with no prior experience.
Grant said that’s not necessarily unusual.
“The job requirements in Colorado are pretty minimal,” Grant said of statutes governing coroner positions. “And, most of the training is on-the-job training unless you’re a forensic pathologist initially, which very few (coroners) are.”
McKey has spent time trying to get up to speed.
Between the general election and swearing in ceremony, he said he’s taken a 40-hour training course in Denver and shadowed Grant during his final two weeks in office.
McKey also plans to shadow coroners in other communities — places where coroners deal with more cases.
Despite being a newcomer to the position, McKey said his new job will not make him queasy.
McKey, 57, was born in Vicksburg, Miss. In 1976, he graduated from Logan College of Chiropractic in St. Louis, Mo.
There, McKey received training that applies to his new position.
“I had two hours of anatomy and dissection every day for nine months … right before lunch,” he said.
Over those nine months, McKey and fellow students dissected three human cadavers of varying ages.
McKey said the experience hardened him to the realities of life and death and will allow him to deal with aspects of being a coroner that he feels are most important.
“I won’t be impacted by the scene,” he said. “In other words, I won’t be in shock. I’ll be able to do my job. When you go to a scene, the deceased is somebody’s family. I really believe there has to be a lot of respect for this family member that we’re doing an investigation on.
“That’s part of my duty to the family. It’s making sure that body is handled with dignity and respect. … When I get to a scene — whatever may be there — I’ll be able to objectively get the investigation done … I’ll be able to remain composed.”
His duty also includes notifying a family of their loss. It is that aspect — more so than investigation or identification — that concerns McKey.
“Notifying next of kin is going to present some challenges,” he said. “We all experience loss in our lives, and we know life’s not fair. I’ve had my share of those situations.
“But still, it’ll be challenging when you go to see your friend or people you’ve known for 20 or 30 years to tell them about someone that they’ve just lost.”
On the other hand, McKey said notifying family members carries importance that transcends the difficulty.
“I feel it’s an honor to have that position, to be the one to tell them,” he said. “Somebody has got to notify them. I’m a compassionate person and I care, and I hope if they see me coming they know I’m there for them.”
Moffat County Sheriff Tim Jantz said compassion is what makes a good coroner.
“Death is a very traumatic event,” Jantz said. “I don’t care if it’s hospice care, homicide, suicide, or whatever it is. Even if you’re aware that someone is going to be passing on, it’s still a traumatic event.
“When you deal with death notification or death investigations, you have to have a very compassionate side. And, sometimes it’s tough to have that compassionate side, and not let it affect you deeply. If you have that capacity, I think that’s what it takes.
“It’s a very interesting job. It’s not for everybody.”
Grant, a long-time coroner and owner of Grant Mortuary in Craig, said striking a balance between compassion and stoicism is the most difficult part of the job.
“You try not to become callous to it, but you have to, to a certain degree, or you couldn’t do the job,” Grant said. “But, you can’t let it feed on you night and day, either.”
McKey said his first hands-on experience of coroner duties was under Grant’s wing. Grant was still coroner at the time.
“I was very nervous,” McKey said. “I didn’t know where we were going or what we were going to do. When we got there, I was just trying to observe and make mental notes of what everybody was doing and where.
“It just made everything real. You have ideas of what it will be like. You’ve sat in class, you’ve read, you’ve studied. But, it made everything real.”
Jantz said McKey will receive plenty of support from law enforcement agencies now that he’s been sworn in.
“We’re not going to throw him out to the wolves,” the sheriff said. “We don’t work that way.”
As of Friday night, McKey hadn’t gone on his first call as coroner.
When asked if he was nervous, McKey laughed.
“I jump every time the phone rings,” he said.
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