It takes a certain type of person to fill the role of county coroner. One must be tough enough to handle the most grisly details of death, yet compassionate enough to help survivors cope with the unexpected and often tragic loss of loved ones.
For Bulloch County Coroner Jake Futch, it is a calling. A combination of experience working in the funeral home business as well as law enforcement only serves as a supplement to the natural inclination to help people, he said.
Futch has been Bulloch County’s coroner for 20 years. He was re-elected Nov. 3 to his sixth term.
An interest in understanding how people deal with death led Futch to begin working at a funeral home right out of high school, he said. A stint working with Georgia Southern University police, becoming a certified officer with the Peace Officers Training and Standards (POST) and a short period working with DeKalb County police helped guide Futch to seek election in 2000, he said.
A genuine concern for people in the community where he grew up was a strong factor as well.
“I love Bulloch County,” he said. “My family has been a part of the Bulloch County community for generations. It is the greatest place in the world to live. It is only natural that I would want to give back to the people of this county.”
It just “made sense” for him to seek the coroner’s position when the opportunity arose. “Twenty years ago, I felt called to become the county coroner in order to minister to people at the worst time of their lives,” he said.
But that is just part of Futch’s daily duties. He is called to the scene of death at all times and under a variety of circumstances.
There are many misconceptions about the coroner’s job and power.
“It is an old wives tale” that the coroner is the only one who can arrest a sheriff, he said.
“Any law enforcement officer can arrest the sheriff.”
But as a certified peace officer who is deputized, Futch can indeed legally arrest someone, if necessary.
Another interesting fact about a coroner’s responsibilities is that “while the peace officer has jurisdiction over the scene of death, the coroner has jurisdiction over the body,” he said.
Just being elected to the position is not all it takes to be coroner. Like in law enforcement, continuous training is involved.
Coroners are required to take an annual education course with updates about the position, according to Futch.
A coroner makes the first determination of a cause of death. He is always on call and arrives at the scene to help with investigations of cases like murder, accidents and suspicious deaths.
With the help of forensics and autopsies, a coroner documents and officially declares cause and manner of death most notably in cases of sudden, suspicious or untimely demise.
Often, the scene of an accident, murder or suicide can be graphic and disturbing and “you have to separate yourself” from normal human reaction in order to be able to handle the job, he said.
However, the most difficult part is not examining dead bodies, but breaking bad news to the living, Futch said.
“The most difficult part of my job is notifying the next of kin in an unexpected or unusual death,” he said.
Especially hard is “when you have to tell parents about the death of a child.” Being a father of children “from 8 to 28” brings the topic too close for comfort, he said.
A strong faith and reliance on God enables Futch to deal with the ugly and tragic sides of dying. Death is never a pleasant occasion, but there is a significant difference between the passing of someone who is ill or elderly and the sudden shock of a traffic crash, workplace accident or homicide.
“I have seen a lot of disturbing scenes over the years,” he said. “I always pray before I get to a scene that the Lord will make me stronger than I am in my own power.”
An unusual sidebar to Futch’s job is that he shares an office with the remains of several people whose cremated bodies were never claimed by family. More than 20 boxes of cremains are kept in a closet in the coroner’s office, waiting to be retrieved by a family member
For a lot of people, two decades in one job leads to dreams of retirement, but Futch isn’t planning to do that any time soon.
“I feel the coroner’s position is a ministry that I have been given by the Lord,” he said. “So, until the Lord and his people decide otherwise, I plan to remain as coroner” and continue to qualify and run for office.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.