The inevitable certainty of death isn’t a pleasant topic for most of us, but for Fayette County’s first female Deputy Coroner, it’s the beginning of each workday. Deputy Coroner Wendy Moulder has responded to countless homes to document the worst of humanity and attempt to bring comfort to families looking for answers. She possesses both a quintessential Southern politeness and a ferociously dry sense of humor that lend themselves well to her profession.
After spending just a short time with her, you realize that all your favorite fictional crime shows would be more entertaining with her working the fictional cases we watch as an escape from reality. However, the business of death investigation is more nuanced and complicated than what we might see on Netflix or Hulu. When working at an actual death investigation scene Moulder remarks, “You are dealing with real people. Someone’s mom, dad, or child and, in the end, in reality, not everyone walks off the set.” Death investigations can also be impossibly complex, unsettlingly gory, and lengthy. Managing a caseload at work and raising her three kids at home requires a unique set of skills that Moulder has developed through years of experience, hundreds of crime scenes, and a passion for investigative work she inherited from her dad.
As the youngest child of an East Point police detective, known as “Big Ole Papa” to his grandchildren, Moulder decided to follow in her father’s footsteps when she started as a police recruit for the City of Riverdale in 2001 as one of only two women in her police academy class. After graduating from the academy, she responded to countless burglar alarms, auto accidents, and natural deaths before she was promoted to detective in 2003 and found her calling as an investigator just as her father had a generation before. In 2007, she joined the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office where she worked on patrol for a short time before she was again promoted to detective. Quickly settling back into the routine of responding to crime scenes, Moulder enjoyed the challenge of managing a complex caseload, including working closely with crime victims and their families. She utilized a gentle wisdom developed over her years of service that was undoubtedly appreciated by people often facing the worst day of their lives. “During what may be one of the hardest times of their lives, every act you take, the words you say, or don’t say, will stay with them for the rest of their life,” Moulder acknowledges.
Moulder left the Sheriff’s Office in 2017 in order to focus her 15 years of police experience exclusively on death investigations at the Fayette County Coroner’s Office, a political office that generally does not get a lot of press or attention from the general public. Every four years we might catch a glimpse of a few yard signs for candidates running for Coroner, but the office and its investigators conduct their jobs with much less public visibility than the police agencies they work beside. As a deputy coroner, the type of cases Moulder now investigates does not vary in the same way it did when she was a police detective handling a wide variety of crimes from misdemeanor thefts to arson. Her mandate in each case is the same: investigate unattended deaths in Fayette County and make a determination as to the cause and manner. But Moulder transitions from carefully examining traumatic injuries in one room to patiently explaining the process of organ donation to shocked and grief-stricken family members in another room. Her approach is simple, treat families with the same respect and dignity you would expect to be shown on one of the worst days of your life. And it is this ability to transition her skills between the rooms of trauma and mourning that make her such an asset to the role.
The often jarring juxtapositions of her job don’t end when she leaves work for the day. Her work now carries with it the weight of looming possibilities. “I can’t drive down the road without recalling head on collisions. I see happy, healthy babies sleeping and think of SIDS cases that I have investigated,” Moulder laments. However, she also reminds herself, “This career has made me a better mother, wife and person. I have learned to not take life for granted and to make the best of each and every day that you wake up. We only have one life, and life is often too short.” For her, seeing the darker side of polite society has revealed the preciousness of it.
If you imagine a career spent wading into and through human tragedy would inoculate you from the shock of your own loss, you would be wrong. In 2019, Moulder’s family lost Big Ole Papa after a prolonged illness. The death of her father and mentor was a personal reminder of our inevitable mortality. “Death is hard. Even losing an older family member with the natural ‘circle of life’ idea in mind is hard,” Moulder admits. Before his death, Moulder frequently brought her father to the hospital for treatment, and they developed a bond with the staff there. He would jokingly ask them not to get confused about the reason for his daughter’s presence at his appointments. It appears that Moulder’s love of public service is not the only trait she inherited from her father. He has been gone for less than a year, but his presence remains evident in her passion for the job. Moulder sums up her career thus far by saying, “I feel that it’s my calling and purpose here to make the best of a horrible situation, and whatever I can do to make any of it less painful, I will.” Big Ole Papa taught her well and was no doubt proud of the important work she does.