First thing’s first, they don’t bother Shelia Summerford. Not in the least. In fact … she kind of likes working around them.
“I’ve been out to wrecks, seen people burned up in house fires, people who have been shot, old people, infants … a little bit of everything,” she said in a tone that suggested she was listing accomplishments rather than what most would consider to be horrors and terrible misfortunes. Not to suggest she trivializes any of these things; it’s just, working around them doesn’t really bother her at all. There’s an underlying morbid curiosity to the work, but also a chance to be the person who does a job most really, really don’t want to do.
“Somebody’s got to do it,” Summerford said with a shrug.
“Putting someone in a body bag is tough,” she added … a claim few people can make based on first-hand experience.
There’s a reason for that: Being a coroner really isn’t for everyone. Summerford, however, loves it.
“Everybody says I’m weird anyway, so I guess it just fits,” she said.
Although most days find Summerford working out of her Fulton flower shop, she also spends a a lot of time serving as Itawamba County’s deputy coroner, second-in-command to coroner Steven McNeece. It’s a position she took up just over a year ago and a move that, to her casual acquaintances, likely seemed to come out of nowhere. Boisterous, kinetic and loquacious … Summerford hardly seems the type to want to work around a bunch of stiffs.
But just over a year ago, that’s exactly what she decided to do. After attending a 60-hour course in Jackson — which covered a bit of everything that comes with dealing with the dead, from toxicology to decorum — Summerford was officially deputized and put to work.
As deputy coroner, Summerford’s job is to take up the slack for McNeece. Being a coroner is a “be on call 24/7” kind of deal … whenever someone dies in Itawamba County, the coroner or his deputy has to be there to make the official pronouncement of death. Last year, Summerford and McNeece responded to approximately 150 deaths … a slow year, according to Summerford. Normally, it’s nearer to 180 deaths.
Some of them were pretty shocking, to say the least. For example, the gentleman found dead on his houseboat. His body had been there for a week by the time it was discovered.
In the back of her car, Summerford keeps a collection of what she calls “essentials:” Duct tape, rubber boots, gloves, a tarp and a Hazmat suit among them.
“You learn to carry a lot of different things on you at all times,” she said with a chortle. “You never really know what you’re going to come across.”
Almost as an afterthought, she added, “You also develop a bit of a strong stomach doing this job.”
There’s a lot of variety to her job. She’s a bit of a scientist and a bit of a detective; she’s a mediator and a counselor … a tearful advisor and a stern authority. Different people handle death in different ways, and it’s important to understand that fact and adjust accordingly.
“You have to be a jack of all trades,” Summerford said.
Oftentimes, her job involves speaking with family members, or informing someone that a loved one has passed. No one likes being the bearer of bad news.
“That’s always hard,” Summerford said. “You never know what to say to make them understand. It’s tough, and it’s sad.”
As expected, the job can be a lot to deal with. It’s something that can certainly weigh on a person’s emotions. Summerford said there’s a certain amount of emotional detachment that’s required in her line of work. It’s not apathy, she said; no, it’s a willingness to accept that sometimes bad things happen.
“You’ve just got to come to accept that some things come down from God,” she said. “You can’t worry about that … You’ve just got to go in and do your job.
“And you’ve got to have a bit of a sense of humor about death to be in this line of work,” she said. “Otherwise, it’ll get to you. You really have to separate yourself from some of this stuff.”
Responding to calls for older people, she said, is the hardest for her.
Which brings into question why — with its emotional pain, awful hours and occasional messiness — does Summerford love being deputy coroner as much as she does?
Honestly, she doesn’t really have an answer to that question.
“I don’t know,” she said with a small laugh. “I guess it’s hard to explain why I enjoy it.”
After a minute, she added, “I’m just sort of crazy, I guess,” which pretty much laid the question to rest.