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Voting For Coroner Is A Grave Decision

Monday, April 18, 2011

Death is no laughing matter.

Granted, dark humor and witty wisecracks sometimes break tension or offer an outlet for people who otherwise might collapse with sorrow. Only the rare funeral mass nowadays offers no funny anecdotes about the deceased or the family of guffawing mourners who pack the pews to giggle about the most recent loved one to buy the farm.

See, even I can find informality in the turn of a phrase. But I do not recommend such light response from people paid to reassure, comfort and walk survivors through the storm of loss.

When death comes to someone you love, laughter and smart-aleck retorts are not what most people want or need – especially from an elected public official who is paid to help you come to grips with the officialdom of death.

Even in Scranton a coroner is expected to be a professional and not a full-time stand-up comic.

That’s why my conversation with an undertaker and a candidate for the Lackawanna County coroner’s job caught my attention at a party Friday night as much as any conversation I’ve ever had with a political candidate.

I was as interested talking death as I’ve been talking corruption - not to say that coroners are immune to the real dark side of public service. Aside from the standard jokes about the dead voting, one former Lackawanna County coroner wallowed in scandal before resigning and will go down in history as a political hustler of both the living and the dead.

This year’s election will hopefully set a skilled level of excellence for the future.

Tomorrow night’s coroner’s debate at Marywood University between 7-8 p.m. is a stunning example of just how seriously people in Northeastern Pennsylvania take their politics.

Since the coroner’s job pays $66,174-a-year, if we ever hope to get what we pay for, we should take the race particularly seriously. That’s a lot of money for a county public official but it’s the established salary for each county row officer.

County commissioners receive $76,017 while the commission chair received $78,836.

And partisan power politics has long ruled the selection, election and re-election of the right man for the job. I say “man” because I don’t believe a woman has ever held the job. If so, I’ll be happily corrected.

This is all the more reason for women, particularly female candidates for coroner, to be allowed to attend the annual Lackawanna County Friendly Sons of St. Patrick dinner where a collection of stiffs unlike any you’re ever seen this side of a Dublin state funeral assemble to toast themselves and plan for future wakes, I mean elections.

Sorry, lads, but I just couldn’t let that one go.

Tomorrow’s debate will pit politically savvy candidates against each other to discuss their qualifications for the job. Most are undertakers, more commonly known nowadays as funeral directors, and are neighborhood institutions in their respective local haunts.

They have already appeared dutifully before the county Democratic Committee which decides who to anoint and who to dismiss from the endorsement that carries considerable weight in the county. I don’t know who got the endorsement. I don’t know the names of the candidates, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans or if they have cross-filed on both party ballots

Most people don’t know, either. But if you’re in the political loop, and many voters are part of that slick inside track, you know whose sign you’re supposed to stick in your yard.

I’m more interested in qualifications. But I’m not exactly sure what a coroner does. Pronounce a body dead? Offer a cause of death? Doesn’t a doctor have to do that? How does a coroner know if a body is really dead and not just drunk? Doesn’t a medical person have to determine that? Can an undertaker do that? Why not a bartender?

See, the job is not as easy as it seems.

We truly need to pay closer attention to the process that fills all elected positions, not just the coroner’s job, that, if handled with the respectful regard for death that is expected, is as important a public service as any elected or appointed government position.

Coroners deal with homicides, suicides and death from accident and natural causes.

Coroners literally have grave responsibility in these crucial matters of life and death.

So go to tomorrow’s debate if you can.

Maybe even ask a question such as “Will you enjoy the job?

And whatever you do, don’t you dare vote for the candidate who answers, “Of corpse I will.”

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