In the early morning hours of Nov. 13, a single-car accident in Slidell claimed the life of a 34-year-old man. When a Coroner’s Office investigator went to the man’s house to notify the next of kin, he found a teenager and two younger children at the house. The dead man was a single father, and the investigator — trained in examining death scenes — was at a loss as to what to do.
The investigator ended up staying with the children until the grandparents arrived. “He did the best he could,” St. Tammany Parish Coroner Charles Preston said of the investigator, “but that’s just not what they are trained to do.”
By definition, coroners work with those who have passed from this world. Investigators and technicians focus on classifying the cause and circumstances of a person’s death, not on helping those still living.
Preston is trying to change that.
He has put $5,000 in the office’s budget for 2015 to start a chaplaincy program, hoping to recruit a couple dozen volunteer chaplains who could go out with coroner’s investigators to death scenes and help the family members navigate their next few steps.
The budgeted amount is paltry compared with the Coroner’s Office’s $3.8 million total budget, but Preston said it could have an outsized effect.
In his six months on the job since taking over from interim Coroner Pramod Menon in May, Preston has been on several scenes where a chaplain would have been helpful, he said, including that car accident in Slidell.
“People from the Sheriff’s Office and the Coroner’s Office come and they are all really nice, but when they take down the crime tape, we go,” he said, leaving family members to deal with both the grief and the bureaucratic hurdles of an often sudden loss.
Preston cited the Slidell car wreck as one example that brought the need for a chaplain into sharp relief. But, he added, scenes where a chaplain couldn’t provide a valuable service are the exception, not the rule.
“I hope chaplains will help,” he said.
The program’s development is ecumenical: Preston, a Catholic, is working with the Rev. Donald Bryan, of First Pentecostal Church of Slidell.
Bryan is working on developing the policies and procedures for the program, which will be based on a chaplaincy program at the Nashville (Tennessee) Police Department, where Bryan has a friend who provided him with a copy of that program’s rules and regulations.
The program would be open to people of all faiths, Bryan said. He hopes to recruit between 15 and 30 chaplains who would be on call for as much as two days at a time, Bryan said.
The chaplains would operate much like counselors in the St. Tammany Outreach for the Prevention of Suicide, or STOPS, program. A chaplain could assist the Coroner’s Office by performing a death notification or counseling the family. If the family declines the offer of help, the chaplain would give them a brochure outlining available services and leave, Preston said.
Preston said he wasn’t aware of any similar programs being operated by other coroners, but he said he is modeling it on chaplains who work with police and fire departments.
East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Beau Clark doesn’t have a chaplaincy program, but he does have volunteer counselors who help people who have suffered a traumatic loss. His program, called Traumatic Loss Outreach, revived and expanded a program that had been in place under one of his predecessors.
Clark’s program, however, has no religious component. The counselors are trained volunteers, not members of the clergy.
Asked why he decided to include a religious component, Preston said he wants to use people who already have some experience in grief counseling. And approaching faith-based organizations was a no-brainer because “they were already in place,” he said.
Preston hopes the training — which he expects to cost about $100 per chaplain — can begin early next year.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.