Drop by our gift shop, of corpse Morgue: The Los Angeles County coroner's office supports its anti-drunken driving campaign with the proceeds of its macabre line of gift items and souvenirs. Business is booming.


December 05, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- The dead still outnumber the living at the county morgue, but that may not hold true forever if sales keep booming at the gift shop.

The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office handles 19,000 bodies and serves 1,000 living customers a year browsing for such articles as a $20 beach towel emblazoned with a chalk outline of a body.

Talked up from People to Playboy, the shop called Skeletons in the Closet has expanded to an office with a full-time staff of one and has sold the rights to market its name in Japan, where homicide in America plays as a dime-store novelty.

"It has just started to snowball," says Anthony T. Hernandez, the director of the medical examiner's office made famous in the television show "Quincy."

The store run by Gisella Grey profits on the macabre, selling everything from personalized toe tags to baseball caps to mugs, in addition to the standard T-shirts, refrigerator magnets and playing cards.

There's a miniature skull to hold your business cards. A "stay cool" key chain. Body-shaped Post-it notes. A barbecue apron that says "spare hands" and "spare ribs." A coroner's jacket "designed for the active life-style." And of course, a limited-edition toy replica of a 1938 Chevy panel van like the one used to pick up Marilyn Monroe's body.

Skeletons in the Closet -- with the slogan "We're dying for your business" -- brings in about $280,000 a year, much of it by mail order from customers around the world seeking unusual gifts.

The money pays for the morgue's Youthful Drunk Driving Visitation Program, an alternative-sentencing initiative to force teen-agers who drink and drive to watch an autopsy in hopes that they may be scared straight.

"We really think this is a good objective that is saving lives," Hernandez says, adding that his cash-strapped office nearly had to shut the program down a few years ago.

Just the same, Hernandez realizes that, for some, profiting on death is a bit hard to take. Sprawling Los Angeles County, with 10 million residents, has about 2,000 homicides a year.

"L.A. already is considered the murder capital of the world," Hernandez concedes. "We take it very seriously. We are helping to provide information that police need to solve these cases, and that is no laughing matter."

He insists that people can separate the serious role from the "gallows humor" widely used by public safety workers to help deal with carnage, but rarely put on public display, especially for profit.

A former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors once objected to the store. A group called Mothers of Murdered Children also raised concerns.

Hernandez says, "We tried to explain to them that we think the [drunken-driving] program saves lives and we are extremely sympathetic to their loss."

Dr. John E. Smialek, Maryland's chief medical examiner, won't even discuss the issue. "I don't want to be in a position to comment on it," he says.

But the very idea of a gift shop angers a top official in Smialek's office, who insisted that his name not be used: "Absolutely not! It just seems like an inappropriate way to raise funds. . . . They are making a profit off of death.

"I just don't think that shows a lot of good judgment. Maybe that's OK in California."

Hernandez is as excited by the gift shop as he is defensive about it. Put him inside the room surrounded by morgue memorabilia, and he jumps from display case to display case, showing off the latest wrinkles in marketing someone's demise.

"Winter clothes," he shouts, holding up a sweat shirt. "We've got every T-shirt imaginable."

He runs the executive branch of one of the largest coroner's offices in the nation, with a budget of $11.5 million and a staff of 173. Yet where the store is concerned, he's like a carnival huckster trying to sell you on a boardwalk game -- rather like a cross between Dr. Jack Kevorkian and a used-car salesman.

The gift shop is clearly at a crossroads. What started as a way to sell a few items to employees out of a hallway closet has gone international, with mail-order requests coming from as far away as New Zealand.

At the same time, it's trying to stay low-key. Hernandez opens the door to reporters but does not have a sign in the sparse, functional lobby of the two-story building in East Los Angeles.

There are only six visitor spaces in the parking lot, yet 30 people a day come to shop. The store takes only cash. "Checks accepted with two forms of ID or dental records," a sign on the door jokes. Visitors have to be buzzed in by the desk.

There is an unofficial site on the Internet, started by a man grateful for the treatment of his wife's body by Fernandez's office. And the shop recently won an award for an advertisement showing a man pushing a gurney with a body down a hall. As it passes the shop, a hand reaches out from under the tarp and grabs a mug off a rack.

The chalk body outline has been registered as a trademark, along with the signature skeleton dressed in a trench coat, with cap and pipe, called "Sherlock Bones."

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