Death chaplain
Medical Examiner volunteer offers comfort and resources for the grief stricken

by Lori Arnold

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Joe Davis walked up a stranger’s driveway just as he had hundreds of times before. As he closed the gap between the curb and the front porch he noticed a pair of toddler shoes and two others, each a little larger.

“I’m thinking, Oh my gosh, this guy’s got three little kids and I’m going to walk up there and I’m going to turn this family upside down forever,” Davis said. “This is going to be a day that this family will never, ever forget.”

As chaplain for the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office, death notifications may have become second nature, but no less personal.

“I can see my tie bouncing off of my chest,” he said. “Then you see little momma preparing lunch for her three kids, and she’s as happy as she can be. I can see her in the bay window, and then she sees me walking up the driveway wearing a badge.”

More than a decade ago Davis accompanied a forensic investigator to Santana High School in Santee, Calif., where earlier in the day an armed student killed two peers and injured 13 others. By the time they arrived at the school campus that afternoon, they had already monitored live television news coverage and had visited a local hospital where one of the victims died.

“To actually walk into the scene after seeing and hearing the stories all day long and have it become that much of a reality it was really, really something,” he said, drawing a deep breath. “There were backpacks all over the place, and the kids literally ran out of their shoes to get away. You can literally see the horror and the panic.”

While the shoes tell a story, so do the souls.

Davis has specialized in the souls for the past dozen years as he has volunteered his time to help the Medical Examiner’s staff and victims’ families walk through the process of grief brought on by sudden, traumatic and unexpected death.

“I get to be in a position where in the most hopeless of circumstances, potentially, you can infuse just a little bit of hope,” the chaplain said. “I’m not here to judge people, I’m here to help people. You talk about a key position that God can place somebody in in order to minister his grace. He says in Psalms that ‘I am an ever-present help in times of trouble.’ There is no more troubling time in your life than losing somebody you love. There’s been times when He’s allowed a goofball like me to get in there and help these families in a really, really, really cool, cool way.”

Initially brought on to help the staff process the stress from the dark nature of their jobs, Davis’ skills have since evolved, broadening the focus of the chaplain’s office into a Bereavement Center that offers a wide range of services for the 3,000 or so families served by the department each year. Davis said his goal is to do follow-up contacts with every single local family served by the Medical Examiner’s office.

“I had been praying for four years, ‘Lord, what do you want me to do?” said Davis, who had been doing pastoral counseling with a church. “As soon as I heard the words (that) the Medical Examiner was considering a chaplaincy program I knew that I knew that I knew that that was it. That it was mine. That was it; it was so me.”

Davis can’t really explain why he was drawn to such a dark job, but as he looks back over his life, he clearly sees God’s handprints all over the journey.

Critical, holistic care
The San Diego Medical Examiner’s office is the only volunteer-led center of its kind in the United States, and in 2009 it was presented with the National Association of Counties Achievement Award. Chaplain programs in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New Mexico do offer extended services, but they are publicly funded and have trimmed their support because of budget shortfalls, Davis said. In addition, most only offer assistance to victims of homicide.

“It doesn’t cost the county a penny,” Davis said of his program. “It’s the best service that can possibly be provided and, in fact, the only program in the world that has spiritual care.”

In addition to assisting with point-of-impact duties such as death notifications, returning property—wedding rings, keys, wallets—of the decedent to the their families and helping staff with various tasks within the department, the center has generated a storehouse of resources and networks that can provide free counseling in conjunction with San Diego Hospice and the Institute for Palliative Medicine and pro bono cremation services for low-income families. Davis has also created a network of pastors who volunteer to assist families with funeral arrangements and offer guidance through their recovery. He has referred parents to Umbrella Ministries, a support group for moms who have lost a child.

To help families understand the enormity of it all, Davis and his nonprofit Dunamai ministry have developed a 28-page secular booklet called “Helping You Get Through.” Dunamai is Greek for strength and is used in 1 Corinthians 13.

Even children have a place in Davis’ Kearny Mesa office, where he keeps a zoo of stuffed animals for children to play with and adopt while he and adult survivors discuss the life-altering aftermath of sudden—and often violent—death.

“It’s anything that we can do or I can do to make the circumstances not quite so painful,” he said. “I can’t change what happened. I can’t fix it, but I can certainly stop it from being worse.

Financial burdens
The services offered through the Bereavement Center were developed out of the residue of tears from survivors who were suddenly faced with unexpected decisions and expenses. Davis said he often carried the weight of hearing story upon story of family members wondering aloud how they were going to pay for a burial when they didn’t have enough money for rent or food. More often than not, they were turning to credit cards so they could pay a mortician to retrieve their loved one’s remains for burial or cremation.

“I know they are going to be hammered with the debt on that for the rest of their life,” he said. “They don’t have any money.”

So Davis contacted a friend at a local mortuary who pledged to do cremation services at cost for referrals through the bereavement center. After determining need, Davis sends the family member to the mortuary to take care of the paperwork, and Dunamai sends in a check to cover expenses. To date, more than 175 people have benefited from the program.

“Can you imagine? You are already devastated, you’ve already experienced this horrible loss,” he said. “You don’t even know what you are going to do, and some guy comes and says ‘You know, God promises to be an ever-present help in times of trouble and I’m going to show you what He means by that. I think I can help you. If you are willing, this is what I’d like to do.’ And invariably the answer comes back, ‘Why would you do that, you don’t even know me?’”

Tackling his own stress
Personal burnout also played a role in the development of the Bereavement Center’s resources after Davis admitted that the demands of his beloved volunteer post were manifesting themselves by way of hypertension and a stomach disorder.

“I’m experiencing the stress that I’m trying to help others not experience,” Davis said, adding that he responded to his own health issues by getting on his knees and asking the Lord that if he was called to the ministry, then why was it so difficult.

“It was the clearest answer I’ve ever gotten,” he said. “It was, ‘If you are going to get that involved, then you are no good to them and you are no good to me.’ That just revolutionized what we do. I realized that I can’t do it all. I’ve got to be able to develop some resources that will help these families that I can’t get to.”

Instantly, he was able to release some personal pressure.

“It was like, ‘yeah, you’re right. That’s not my problem. I can’t deal with this. I can’t take this home and I can’t pollute my wife. I can’t carry this burden. It’s not my luggage to carry.’”

Darkness and light
In recent years, as the stress of the economy has pressed down on every class of people, the suicide rate has increased steadily after a period of stability. Many of those acts are done in public areas, and others have taken the form of murder suicide. According the Medical Examiner’s records, the suicide rate in San Diego County ranged from 312 to 320 per year for the first eight years that Davis ministered through the department. Three years ago it climbed to 355, the following year was 377 and last year it hovered around 400. This year, the office handled 99 documented cases between January and March, up from 77 in the previous time period. The number will increase, the director said, after cases that are pending for toxicology reports, are officially documented as suicides.

The incidents of violent death, Davis said, reflect an increasingly troubled time for the region and America as a whole.

“The days are evil and they are getting more evil,” he said. “The things that people do to each other and to themselves are, in my opinion, dramatically increasing in darkness.

“For me, as a Christian, the bottom line is there’s not a whole lot of hope out there. If you don’t know Christ, you are in trouble anyway, but how big does that expand when you go through circumstances like having to go to the medical examiner’s office on top of that.”

In the midst of all the heaviness, though, Davis said there are many moments of muted light.

“You will never see a clearer definition of a person of faith than when you are in circumstances like this,” the chaplain said. “Those people who have faith, yes, they are grieving, yes, they are upset, but they are grieving with a hope instead of absolutely no hope, and I’ve seen them both—believe me—over 12 years.”

Over those years, Davis said there have only been subtle changes to his faith.

“I think I take God way more seriously now than I used to,” he said. “I’ve seen so many things that don’t make sense, that never ever, ever, ever will make sense. When we meet I’m going to have a whole bunch of questions.

“But that doesn’t mean I don’t trust Him. I know He knows what’s best. I know He’s on the throne. I know He’s in complete total, absolute control, of not only my life but everybody else’s. I know He allows things in our life for specific purposes. I don’t know what those purposes are. I don’t need to know. I need to trust.”

For more information on the ministry visit

Published, July 2012

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