Review: Working Stiff – Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

“To confront death every day, to see it yourself, you have to love the living.”



Scribner | 2014

Filed Under: Putting the Y-incision in the “Y-incision party!”

Oh. My. Fairy. Godmother. I loved this fucking book!

Judy Melinek is my new role model/inspiration board/personal icon.

Goddamn, this was some good stuff.

Dr. Judy Melinek – amazing human being and most badass bitch I’ve read about it since I can’t even remember when – takes you on a journey through the first two years of her career after she started a forensic pathology fellowship at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City.

I swear to the god of thunder, this bitch is living the dreams I would have had if I hadn’t recognized early on in my life that I have zero talent or brain cells dedicated to understanding science.

The romanticized/dramatized version of being an M.E. is that it’s all homicides all the time, and that you’re in the shit with the detectives solving crimes.

And that’s really not at all accurate. I mean I totally knew that on a logically level, but I still love those crime shows. So sue me.

Truly, I think the hardest part about being an M.E. would be all the times you don’t get to be part of unravelling the full mystery of what happened to someone. There were multiple times in this book where Dr. M had to just say “okay, that’s it,” even though she knew there was more to discover, or that the detectives weren’t doing their jobs fully. That would be wildly frustrating to me, so maybe it’s a good thing I’m a dumb-dumb.

dumb jennifer lawrence GIF

Despite Dr. M spending most of her time doing autopsies on seemingly regular deaths – drug overdoses, alcoholics, car accidents and medical complications – trust me when I say, it is still a completely engaging ride and that will never bore you. I was totally into every case discussed and every medical explanation thrown my way. It is just completely chalked full of compelling stories and autopsies and the unique characters who surrounded her at work.

Dr. M makes pathology more fun and more humbling than any show on TV has ever managed.

And she does it by simply being honest. Honest about the struggles, the completely gross-out moments, the heartbreaking moments and the frustrating ones.

She talks about how the uterus of a pregnant woman ejected from her body after a plane crash. She talks about a man who died from complications due to his penile implant. She talks about the constant phone calls from parents who would beg her to change the cause of death on a death certificate because they just couldn’t accept that their child had willingly done drugs and overdosed. And she talks about the work she did during 9-11.

This section of the book was the shortest, but it was the most powerful to me. Dr. M and a team of pathologist worked for endless hours trying to piece together the identities of those who passed at the twin towers.

It really shed a light on the work that officials did and the mental toll it took on them. There’s some part of me that just never thought about the medical behind-the-scenes side of that event.

Dr. M explains how sometimes all they had to work with to identify a victim was a hand or a body part or a wedding ring with an engraving. There were so many bodies that they would be delivered to the team of pathologists in construction dump trucks. There was so little space to store everything that the bodies were then kept in the trucks, instead of in pathology coolers, as they tried to sort out bones and fragments and organs and limbs. Certain trucks would be for only separated random bodies parts. Other trucks would be for intact bodies that could be identified. There were trucks that held only firefighters and police officers who had died working through the disaster.

Omg, and then there was anthrax! She was even involved in an anthrax attack!


You know, fun in a totally tragic kind of way. I’m not crazy.

normal jojo fletcher GIF by The Bachelorette

Through all of the “shop-talk” and explanation of what it means to do her job overall, Dr. M injects personal opinions and information about herself, her marriage and her children, that served to ground the book and add a layer of humanity to the otherwise gruesome, and sometimes funny, stories.

I feel like I know Dr. M and that I understand what it means to do the work she does; how many facets there are to it, which are much more than just TV show entertainment.

From the medical and science-side, to the human side where she councils families and is a shoulder to cry on or is a punching bag, down to the legal side of working with law enforcement and testifying in court.

This was a super insightful and fulfilling read for me and I have nothing but praise for the woman behind the bodies. If you have any interest whatsoever in forensic science, read this book!


Just two months before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Judy Melinek began her training as a New York City forensic pathologist. With her husband, T.J. and their toddler, Daniel, holding down the home front, Judy threw herself into the fascinating world of death investigation—performing autopsies, investigating death scenes, and counselling grieving relatives.

Working Stiff takes readers behind the police tape of some of the most harrowing deaths in the Big Apple, including a firsthand account of the events of September 11, the subsequent anthrax bioterrorism attack, and the disastrous crash of American Airlines Flight 587.

Lively, action-packed, and loaded with mordant wit, Working Stiff explores both the challenges and rewards of shuttling between the domains of the living and the dead. 

4 thoughts on “Review: Working Stiff – Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

  1. Wow that sounds like the perfect book! That’s exactly what I wanted to do when I was young but my teachers said I should study law (spoiler alert: I did) and I always regretted it. I never heard about that book but now I have to find it. I just HAVE to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Did you stick with law as a career? I think I’d make a good lawyer just because I like arguing with people LOL. But alas, I have the brain but not the patience for school *shrug*. Definitely read this book though, especially if you have an interest in it. It’s just so good!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nah in the end I tried taxes and HR which has nothing to do with my law degree! I guess degrees don’t mean that much 😆
        I hate arguing so I would have made a super lousy lawyer haha
        I’ll try to find the book asap it sounds amazing

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s