“I don’t like death.
Searching for Answers
Mary Jumbelic, ’83, knows the face of death. She sees it almost every day. On an August morning, Jumbelic, chief medical examiner of the Onondaga County Medical Examiner’s Office in New York state, is already busy.
She conducts an autopsy of a 94-year-old man broadsided by a tractor trailer. She investigates the death of a young woman who has died after an asthma attack, and examines a woman in her 60s who accidentally set herself on fire while smoking in bed hooked to her oxygen tank. “Never a good idea,” says Jumbelic, age 50. “She caught on fire. These are terrible tragedies.”
For more than 20 years, Jumbelic has made her living studying the bodies of the deceased, probing and investigating to determine the cause of death. She has studied bodies of the young and old, rich and poor, black and white. While her mission most often is to unmask the cause of death, other times it is to connect a disfigured corpse, bone fragment, or piece of flesh to a name; so loved ones can mourn and have closure.
Jumbelic has been tapped to work some of the world’s most horrific disasters: Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Thailand tsunami the same year, the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in 2001, KAL Flight 801 in Guam in 1997, and in 1996 TWA Flight 800 on Long Island.
“I don’t like death. I don’t welcome death. But I live with it all of the time,” says Jumbelic. “My work constantly reminds me of that thin line between life and death.”
The line can be breached anytime, any place. Families who have had loved ones die in disasters—manmade or natural—know this lesson all too well.
In 1996, Jumbelic was called to work the makeshift morgue in the aftermath of TWA Flight 800. She pulled 12-hour shifts working to identify bodies, a gruesome task yet at times rewarding. A daughter, searching for her mother, identified the body only after investigators found her mother’s wedding ring. “Tears just welled up in my eyes,” Jumbelic recalls. “I was trying to be very strong. People hugged me. They were just grateful.”
A man from Italy, accompanied by an interpreter, met Jumbelic hoping to find his brother who was also on the flight. The only identifying feature on the deceased man was a tattoo on his arm. Suddenly, the brother thrust his arm forward. He had an identical tattoo—a scorpion. “It was chilling,” Jumbelic says. “It is hard to take death on an individual basis, but taking it in large numbers can be overwhelming.”
One of the most scarring experiences was identifying bodies in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. The day after planes rammed the towers, Jumbelic was at ground zero working to identify bodies. For a month she rode in a van from Queens with a handful of professionals including an anthropologist, evidence experts, and a photographer. They were forced to pass through 10 security checkpoints before arriving in the city. “There were fires still burning, smoke in the air, paper floating down out of the sky, wind blowing everything,” she recalls. “It felt like a war zone.”
People brought to Jumbelic and the others in the morgue pieces of bodies, fragments of skull, hair, and, on occasion, animal remains mistaken for human. “I could not go back to New York City for three years after that experience,” Jumbelic admits. “It was very sobering to walk in one of the greatest cities in the world and see the devastation. It was very scarring.”
The human carnage Jumbelic witnessed in New Orleans was equally distressing. The poor, sick, old, and weak had been left alone to fend for themselves. “It made me ashamed,” she says. She read stories about people dying in the Superdome, bodies being tied to telephone poles so they wouldn’t float away, a father trying to rescue his daughter only to see her slip away, swallowed by the murky water.
Bodies brought into the morgue were bloated and badly decomposed. “I saw hundreds of bodies,” says Jumbelic, who noted that the federal process for conducting autopsies and making identifications ran smoothly.
Jumbelic’s fascination with death began when she was 13 years old. Her father, a coal miner and house painter, died after an operation. “I saw myself as wanting to be a doctor at that time,” she says. Two years later, while in high school, Jumbelic had a chance to spend a day with a professional of her choice. She was the only student in her class to choose the medical examiner’s office. “They hadn’t had a student show up there in years,” she says. “They gowned me up and sent me into the autopsy room.” She watched the pathologist perform an autopsy. He removed the heart and placed it in Jumbelic’s hands. “That is where my interest began, the fascination with the human body,” she says.
After graduating from the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 1979 with a degree in biologic life sciences, she attended Maryland and graduated four years later. Jumbelic was headed to Union Memorial Hospital for an internship followed by training in general surgery. But there was something about a career in general surgery that didn’t excite Jumbelic. After talking with her boyfriend, whom she later married, she decided to switch to pathology. “I was really hooked,” she says.
Jumbelic completed residency training in pathology at Union Memorial and Northwestern University in Chicago. In 1987, she became a fellow in forensic pathology at the Cook County Office of the Medical Examiner and later deputy medical examiner. In 1995, she was named deputy chief medical examiner at the Onondaga County Medical Examiner’s Office in New York State, and became chief medical examiner in 1998.
She has sat on numerous boards and committees, including the Ground Zero Team, World Trade Center Recovery, Disaster Mortuary Operations Team, and the U.S. Medical Examiner, Forensic Analysis Team, Thailand Tsunami Victim Identification. She has written extensively on a variety of topics. Titles of recent articles range from “Stun Gun Injuries in the Abuse and Death of a Seven-Month-Old Infant,” to “Death by Compaction in a Garbage Truck.”
Jumbelic, who is married and has three children, says the more she studies death the more spiritual she becomes. “I realize many times there is no good explanation for the moment that death occurs,” she says. “Why something happens at that moment remains unexplained. That is what we are all striving to understand. It’s the fear of our own mortality.”
“Maybe just seeing death in all of its faces has made it a grudging reality for me, that I realize it is a part of life, Jumbelic says. “Being so close to death has helped me appreciate life.”