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Monday, 12 November 2007

A Coroner's Court

In the last six weeks, as part of our journalism course, we've visited a coroner's court twice. For a while beforehand, I'd been worrying that the experience would inevitably induce morbid thoughts. In fact, I was surprised by what a strange and unexpectedly graceful beast the coroner's court is. The particular court that we visited, St Pancras', is tucked a few streets behind the shiny new Eurostar station, and was built in 1886. With its red brick gables, buttresses and arched windows, sitting placidly in a wide, tree-canopied park that doubles as a Victorian cemetery, the court resembles an odd kind of gingerbread house; or a setting for a chapter of Dickens' great unfinished gothic novel, Edwin Drood.

I guess in a way witnessing an inquest is sure to cast shadows, and the cases that we observed spoke of the drip-drip despair of individuals whose lives were a constant struggle against unjust odds and the plundering internal war of mental illness. Both deaths were basically suicides, although the coroner recorded an open verdict for the first because of complicating factors that I won't go into here. It would have been strange not to feel an empathetic sense of loss when listening to the accounts of these people's lives, read respectfully by the officer of the court to a mostly empty room. It made me think of King Lear when he glimpses the bedraggled Edgar in the storm and says: "Is man no more than this?... Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art".

There is something so painful about the smallness of the process that greeted the deaths; the quietness of these people's exits from the world. Yet at the same time, I felt a kind of warmth sitting in the court and hearing the coroner's careful, unrushed questions as he tried to clarify the deceased's last days, hours, minutes; tried to sift through the emotional accounts of witnesses and carers; tried to restore some dignity and truth to a scene long concluded. A coroner is either a trained lawyer, a trained doctor, or, as in the case at St. Pancras, both. He or she is surrounded by a team of people for whom dealing with the narratives of death is a career. Yet there is something very sensitive and gentle about the process of the coroner's court; all the staff seemed intent upon keeping the atmosphere calm, ordered and above all, respectful. Because, although the coroner is an instrument of the law; a whirring cog in the machinery of justice and record-keeping, he is never there to find a guilty party. His or her role is strictly limited to establishing the facts behind any death that is a) violent or unnatural or b) sudden. In this way the word 'court' itself is misleading, with its associations of a prosecution, the apportioning of blame or the allotting of punishment.

I've often thought the truly brave way to live would be to do so with the waking knowledge of one's own mortality - although not to the extent that you live in constant existential terror, because that would mean you got nothing whatsoever done and simply existed in constant paralysis, like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights - but there's certainly nothing like coming up close to death for putting the daily grind into perspective. I do wonder how the coroner lives his life and whether he experiences it differently because of his daily encounter with death. Also, I quite like the idea of an inquest as a very British way of trying to cope with the random earth-shattering chaos-inducing anarchy of death. In some cultures people weep and wail in the streets, beat their chests, paint ash on their foreheads; here we get some people together to try to ascribe some order to the event, to encircle it with legal language, methodical procedure. And thus, one feels, we go some way towards imposing propriety, structure, tidiness. We wrestle back a little bit of control over our own fates.

Though don't let me give the wrong impression: I don't think that kind of spiritual succour was ever the official function of the coroner's court. The word coroner comes from the Latin for 'crown'; in 1194, it was decreed that three knights and a clerk "attend" every death - presumably this was optimistic rather than an actual policy, unless medieval knights had a hotline to the grim reaper himself - but anyway, their name was "custos placitorum coronae" - "Keepers of the Pleas of the Crown", and their job was to make sure that the correct portion of the deceased's assets were kept for the Crown. So basically, they were a kind of tax collector. I prefer their role today.

1 comment:

the lineman said...

Filtnib, this is a remarkable article. Beautifully written, and gentle and evocative. Excellent work. I think the pictures support the article beautifully, and the sky in the second picture is amazing. Bravo.