It’s a job that few dream of having. Yet, to Deputy Coroner Michael Barnes, becoming Gunnison County’s chief death investigator is an opportunity to show empathy and compassion while performing a public service.
And, he said, it’s an opportunity to learn something every day.
Barnes is running unopposed for Gunnison County Coroner, following in the footsteps of Frank Vader, who has served in the office for 16 years.
“It’s definitely a lifestyle change and a lifestyle choice,” Barnes said about the job.
Barnes is originally from Frederick, Md., and came to the Gunnison Valley in 2002. He attended Western Colorado University from 2003-2007, earning degrees in both business and recreation.
Following graduation, Barnes worked for Gunnison Watershed RE1J School District as an educational aid, helped friends with construction projects and worked in the physical therapy department at Gunnison Valley Hospital.
Later he was employed by the nonprofit drug testing company, Intervention. When the company went out of business, Barnes started his own substance testing company called Drug Test West. He remains a co-owner today.
In 2014, Barnes met Vader at the hospital and the two began chatting about the coroner’s duties. He eventually went on a call with Vader and watched the process from start to finish, death investigation to notification of the family.
“I was impressed by the importance of the job and how to do it with empathy and compassion,” he said.
Vader, who has worked with Barnes for the last three years, said he believes the new coroner comes into the office better prepared than he was. Barnes has had three years of experience plus numerous training courses.
Vader said he’s glad to have a deputy because the job is an “on-call, 24-7” position, with little time for vacation.
“The core of the job is death investigation,” said Vader. “We are the only party involved in any death that is charged with determining the cause and manner of death.”
Barnes said having a twoperson operation has improved efficiency as well. What at one time would take a week to process a death certificate now only takes two to three days, he said. Barnes has identified someone from Crested Butte interested in becoming his deputy coroner. She has already become a Colorado certified death investigator and will soon apply, he said.
As for the nature of the job itself, Barnes admitted it’s never easy to work the cases — he can’t help but put himself in family members’ shoes. He’s learned how to decompress on his own when he goes home and to get to bed early because he never knows when he’s going to get a call.
After Barnes is installed as the new coroner, Vader plans to continue his partnership with him by helping out with Drug Test West. Vader also has a funeral home business.
The other partnership Barnes has is with his 10-year old son, Harlan, a fifth grader at Gunnison Elementary School. Harlan is interested in advanced level learned, Barnes said, such as rocket science. But the two enjoy spending time outdoors, skiing and mountain biking.
The job of coroner, he mused, also has taught him that life is short, and that it’s important to enjoy every moment of it.
“Being exposed to death on a daily basis makes me try to enjoy every moment more and more,” said Barnes. “In the sense of taking life too darn seriously, we might as well enjoy it while we’re here.”
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)