Retired community coroner Dr. Robert (Bob) Crossland will be at the library Tuesday, Sept. 12 from 7 to 9 p.m. with a presentation accompanying the launch of his new book, Death Calls: A Coroner’s Memoir.
With more than 20 years’ experience in the position, Crossland attended 600-plus unexpected deaths — from natural causes to accidents to criminal investigations — and his job took him to every corner of his Salt Spring Island home and beyond, all in service of an attempt to sort out the “who, when, where, how and why” of unexpected deaths.
“I’ve dealt with scuba diving, airplane crashes, boats, people falling in the harbour, house fires,” said Crossland. “Quite a few circumstances.”
Balancing running a medical practice with coroner duties wasn’t always easy, he said, nor was attending to deaths in a small community — a personal connection to the deceased was practically inevitable — and Crossland said he’d mostly put the experiences away in his mind after retiring.
“My way of dealing with it at the time was to talk to my wife, to diffuse things,” said Crossland. “She was very patient.”
But shortly before passing away two years ago, she had suggested he write his memoirs, Crossland said — initially for his grandchildren, to know more about the work he’d dedicated so much of his life to. And as the writing progressed, it started to become apparent there might be a wider audience.
“Friends said, ‘well, can we see it?’” chuckled Crossland. “People are interested in death; they’re curious about the how and why, and how do we determine that.”
Most coroners in B.C. — particularly, he said, when Crossland was on the job — aren’t usually doctors. They came from a variety of backgrounds, from various public and private service jobs to law enforcement.
“And police look at things differently than doctors,” said Crossland. “We both maybe divide the world in two, but police are looking for good guys and bad guys; doctors are looking for the sick or the healthy.”
Crossland’s path to becoming a coroner seems circuitous, he admitted, but it ultimately helped make him better at the work. Starting as an army officer, he went to Royal Military College, then UBC as a chemical engineer — going to work on nuclear reactors at the Chalk River laboratories in Ontario.
“I was a reactor operations engineer; our job was to keep the reactors running,” said Crossland. “Then I went into medicine, did psychiatry for a couple of years, then internal medicine and became a consultant in internal medicine.”
“That is not a common path,” he said. “But it also gave me an ability to think like an engineer — how do things work? And why?”
That inquisitiveness — and a bit of happenstance — led to Crossland answering the call for a community coroner in 1981 in Powell River. The man he was replacing, he said, was a jeweller by trade.
“And his grandson eventually married my daughter,” he laughed. “That’s what happens in a small community.”
The second part of his career as a coroner began in the Gulf Islands in the 1990s — where he responded by car and boat to hundreds of scenes of loss, tragedy and sometimes mystery.
“There were some true surprises,” said Crossland. “Something right out of left field that you’d never expect. Some real mysteries. But our job was to determine the facts.”
Crossland’s book launch presentation will go over just a few of the more notable cases, he said, including a plane crash, an unfortunate logging incident, and others; he said there will naturally be scenes of — and discussion about — death, but framed to inform rather than to shock.
“I’m going to show slides about the circumstances,” he said, “mostly to give people an understanding of how unusual they can be.”
There will also be exhibits of typical coroner’s reports, as well as those from formal inquests and specialist investigators. For more information about the book, visit the deathcalls.ca website.