A lonely foot protrudes from under a sheet — a tag hanging from its rigid, blue big toe. On the gray plastic gurney next to it, withered flowers and a collapsed Mylar balloon lie lifeless.
Welcome to the deep freeze, in a strictly off-limits area of the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s office.
When the freezer’s heavy, metal door is opened, frost swirls around the 15 or so carts inside, creating an eerie fog that drifts over the floor and throughout the 28-by-32-foot space. But it’s the smell that will haunt you most. The pungent odor permeates the frigid air, clinging so tightly to the hairs inside your nose, you can taste it long after you leave, like a piece of raw onion stuck between your teeth.
This is not the part of the Coroner’s Office where the bodies of loved ones are brought immediately following death — and before being released to a funeral home — for an official record or an autopsy or the identification by family.
It is, instead, in the building’s basement, reserved for the decomposing remains of crime victims and the forgotten.
Two large, gray garage doors — the first sealed shut before the second is open — ensure that the fetid air doesn’t contaminate the rest of the building.
County coroner Dr. Elizabeth Balraj, forensic scientists and six pathologists examine the remains in the immaculately clean lab area. There’s a scale for weighing organs; a big bottle of bleach; an X-ray machine and light screen for viewing; a safety shower; gloves and a big bottle of Johnson’s Baby Powder for easier glove-fitting.
The floor is new white linoleum, with a ring of older, yellowing linoleum around it. Most of the floor was recently replaced after acid — dripping from a murder victim — had damaged it years earlier.
A digital clock on the wall displays the date and time by the second in bright red numerals for accurate documentation. Next to it is a large, wiry box emitting an ominous purple light. Maggots, comfortably living in decay, will turn into flies — and those glowing violet wires will ensure their quick demise. Add a few flies to the remains of the day.