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    A Certain Kind of Death

    "We always wondered what happened to him"

    "A Certain Kind of Death" gives us a patient, detail-rich look into what the authorities do with you when you die alone and unclaimed.


    (Originally reviewed at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival.)

    It's just like "C.S.I." only without the stars, without the glamour, without evil geniuses, cat-and-mouse games and chases. In short, without the "C."

    Directed by: Grover Babcock, Blue Hadaegh.

    Related links: Official site
    Brooklyn Museum 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn Mon June 7 | 10:00pm

    San Francisco Independent Film Festival 2004
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  • A Certain Kind of Death
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  • "A Certain Kind of Death" is a documentary on an unexpected subject indeed — what happens to your body when you're dead, especially if you're one of those people who's found weeks after your demise because the smell was getting to the neighbors. Turns out, there's a whole system and we watch it work from start to finish. If you can imagine yourself dying alone somewhere, you can imagine being one of these corpses yourself.

    To the people in the LA County Coroner's Office, the corpses are, in a way, just product to be moved from department to department, accompanied by the correct documents. But they never fail to treat a case with respect. We see three of these cases through, from the "harvesting" of a naked body on a floor to the depositing of remains in the ground.

    The office handles about 500 unclaimed bodies a year, and the three that we see here seem quite ordinary. Two are down-and-outers, one with a long police record, and the third is a gay man who's already buried any friends who might have taken care of him in his last days, including his own lover in a plot he had bought for himself. (Everybody who handles his case marvels at how organized his affairs are, from his financial records right down to pre-made embalming arrangements.) Investigators comb the deceased's papers for clues that might lead them to a next of kin, but often they find none. As one says, "I can just imagine if we do find a relative, the response is going to be probably non-emotional: 'Oh, okay. Well, we always wondered what happened to him.' "

    A Certain Kind of Death  
    The coroner has people to:

    • Examine the body at the scene. (One says breathlessly to a trainee, "Have you seen bridging like this before? It's beautiful. Textbook blunt-force trauma.")

    • Clean up the deceased's home. ("How dirty was it?" "It's just dusty, it's no problem." "Okay." "Like smoke." "Okay." "Bedroom's kinda ... bloody ... a little bit." "Okay.")

    • Auction off the belongings. (A good estate is worth a few thousand dollars; some people's whole lives are boiled down to a final $180.)

    • Take bodies from the morgue for cremation. (You've probably never seen how this is done before, and there's actually a funny little twist about cremation that never occurred to you.)

    • Bury the bodies (if they've arranged for a cemetery plot) or file the ashes away in a storage building in case anybody shows up in the future to claim them. (The gay man's funeral is an odd one, attended by two men from the funeral home and a priest. Perhaps the priest was another thing the man arranged in advance, but more likely it's an added touch by the county to comfort any possible survivors who show up later with the knowledge that their loved one's remains were properly entrusted to God.)

    "A Certain Kind of Death" doesn't offer many striking revelations, but the filmmakers catch a lot of small details along the way, giving a patient portrait of the process of death and disposal that will stay with you for a long time. You might ask yourself while watching it how many artful movie deaths you've seen in your life without ever seeing the reality and the aftermath the way you see them here.

    FEBRUARY 5, 2004

    Reader comments on A Certain Kind of Death:

  • Sundance Channel   from Phil Glau, May 17, 2004
  • engaging   from Lisa, May 26, 2004
  • Very enlightening   from JT, Jun 5, 2004
  • An impressive documentary   from Sally, Jan 14, 2008
  • a certain kind of death   from , Apr 5, 2011

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