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Video: A dying business? Hardly

By Producer
msnbc.com
updated 10/31/2008 10:02:51 AM ET 2008-10-31T14:02:51

Except for a small poster of the Grateful Dead rock band, there’s very little to indicate what happens behind the walled-in industrial compound in East Los Angeles owned by Vidal and Vicki Herrera.

The only hint a casual observer might have is when a white Hummer pulls in or out of the driveway, the words “1-800-AUTOPSY” in bold black lettering on its side.

“They say dead men tell no tales, but I disagree,” says Vidal Hererra, a veteran autopsy technician.

And he should know. Hererra and his wife Vicki, the owners and creators of 1-800-AUTOPSY, a mom-and-pop business that provides private post-mortem examinations, hear tales from the dead every day — tales of drug abuse, poisonings, violence and medical malpractice.

“If you don’t die peacefully, you die unexpectedly — you’re shot or you’re stabbed or overmedicated,” said Vicki Hererra. “Who’s going to talk for you? Families can’t do it. Only a doctor and the autopsy technician can do it for you. That’s it.”

Hererra’s business is one that might give many the chills, but he insists it’s a business with a red-hot future.

Autopsies used to be a normal procedure for deaths in U.S. hospitals, mainly to understand fully the cause of patients’ deaths. But the growth of managed health care plans has brought  cutbacks, and these days only 2 to 5 percent of deaths are autopsied in hospitals, compared with about 50 percent of deaths in the 1970s. But demand remains constant, Hererra notes: Family members still want to know why their loved ones died.

“Death is, in fact, a recession-proof business — it just never stops,” said Vidal Hererra. The U.S. death rate is currently 2.4 million people a year, and it’s projected to increase to 4 million as the baby boom generation starts to die off, he added. Right now, he says his business is pulling in revenue of $1 million a year, and it’s growing.

When he opened his business in 1988, Hererra says he performed only 40 autopsies in the first year, but today he estimates that his company of three full-time technicians and one part-timer do over 700 procedures a year. Since starting out on his own, he estimates he’s done over 18,000 autopsies.

The business of performing private autopsies is unregulated and largely made up of independent entrepreneurs like Hererra, and so hard facts about its size and revenue are hard to come by. From Hererra’s point of view, it’s looking like a growth industry. He now operates four franchises for his autopsy business in Orlando, Fla.; Portland, Ore.; Las Vegas and San Francisco. Several more franchises are under discussion, he said.

Hererra says he never intended to become a business owner. He learned his trade 35 years ago when he apprenticed at the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office.

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In 1984, after 14 years of employment, he suffered a disabling back injury while conducting a suicide investigation, rupturing three discs in his back. He underwent major surgery, and within 30 days he was jobless. Over the next four years he accumulated over 2,000 job rejection letters. The future looked bleak.

Then, in 1988, Hererra was finally offered a job by the Veteran’s Administration in Los Angles teaching doctors how to do autopsies. He rejected the offer because the pay was too low, but turning down the opportunity unexpectedly opened the door to another. One of the doctors who offered him the job suggested he become subcontractor, and his small business eventually grew into a larger business, driven by word of mouth and  referrals from the funeral industry, the medical community and the legal circle.

“People had enough faith in me to call me for help,” said Hererra. He says much of the publicity for his business comes from his Hummer — the one with “1-800-AUTOPSY” emblazoned on the side. It has proved to be one of his best marketing tools, he notes.

Video: Chilling couches! Not one to shy away from public attention, or a smart business deal, Hererra has found additional money-making opportunities in his field.

The company has moved into the entertainment business as Hererra has turned his collection of antique mortuary and autopsy equipment into a prop-rental business for Hollywood films and television shows. He calls the new sideline “Morgue-proprentals.com.” The business took off  so quickly that Hererra didn’t hesitate to start a third business — coffincouches.com.

The idea was to make couches from rebuilt coffins — an idea suggested to Hererra by a Hollywood film set designer. Once he figured out how to manufacture them, a new business was born.

“We have a person in Dubai who wants to be our Middle Eastern distributor, and we have orders from Australia, Canada, England, Russia, South America, New York, and Chicago — from everywhere,” Hererra said.

Despite the black humor of his coffincouches.com venture, Hererra understands that some people could be a bit spooked by his line of work. But for him it’s neither morbid nor funny. He and his wife Vicky say they’re providing a service that’s very much in need.

“It’s not a joke,” notes Vicki. “Vidal doesn’t treat it as a joke. He may be a little strange and have some weird items around, but it means no disrespect at all to the dead. Because you know his motto is ‘The deceased must be protected and have a voice,’ and he literally lives that. And I think that’s what families come to us for.”

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