On the Front Lines: Jeff Chunn
Dealing with death 24-7 is his job
Photos by Rebekah Yancey and Contributed
“I carry a heavy heart home some nights. That’s my job. I have to shake off the feeling and be ready help the family of the next person who dies.”
Morgan County Coroner Jeff Chunn, 57, is serving in his third four-year consecutive term as an elected public servant. He overcame opponents in his first two terms and ran unopposed for his third term.
“Conveying the message of an unexpected accidental death to the family is the hardest part of my job,” he said. “The death of a loved one is hard for them to accept. All we can do is hug and comfort them and make phone calls to notify other family members and friends. A law enforcement officer usually accompanies me, and we’ll answer the family’s questions to the best of our knowledge.”
He said the upside of his job is when families express their gratitude for the compassion and assistance he extends to them following a death in their family. “I don’t always recognize them by name but greatly appreciate their thoughtfulness and generosity,” he added.
Chunn’s public service career began long before he became coroner. At age 16 he joined the voluntary force of Hartselle Fire & Rescue, receiving his license as an Emergency Medical Technician two years later. He qualified as a paramedic while attending Wallace State Community College and served with Hartselle Fire & Rescue for 10 years.
He also ran ambulance calls with the late coroner Guy Holloway as an EMT/paramedic, which is when he first began to develop an interest in the coroner’s position. He was elected coroner in 2011 after retiring as a captain from the Huntsville Airport Authority.
Chunn has continued serving as a volunteer with Hartselle Fire & Rescue throughout his 39-year career as a paramedic. “I’m not physically able to make all the calls,” he said, “but I respond from time to time and do what I can to help.”
Chunn said he keeps two different shirts on hand, allowing him to distinguish in what capacity he is serving when he responds to accident scenes.
“I have one shirt that is designated ‘coroner’ and one ‘paramedic and coroner,’” he explained. “I carry both of them with me on an accident call. Law enforcement officers working the accident, in the rush of providing emergency medical attention to the drivers or passengers, mistake me for being a paramedic after glancing at my shirt and call on me to assist. I’ll change shirts in my station wagon when I arrive at the scene to ensure my identity.”
Chunn said his responsibilities range from determining the manner and cause of death at accident and crime scenes to ordering autopsies in deaths where one is needed. He is also responsible for creating and signing death certificates, doing blood work and lab sampling in certain deaths and approving cremations throughout the county.
He has an office in the Morgan County Courthouse and another in his home in Hartselle. He is subject to receiving calls at any time, seven days a week.
“Most of my calls come in early mornings or late afternoons,” Chunn said. “Most suicides occur in the early months of spring.”
As a rapid responder, Chunn received the vaccine for the coronavirus several weeks ago.
“I feel lucky to be virus-free,” he said. “I am a survivor of lung cancer and also a member of the COVID-19 Morgan County Committee. I feel like wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and following good health habits helped keep me virus-free.”
Chunn is a native of Valhermoso Springs and a graduate of Cotaco High School. He and his wife Lisa, an assisted living employee in Decatur, reside in Hartselle. They have two adult children – a son, Matthew, and a daughter, Kimberly – and two grandchildren.
“I feel comfortable in my job. I’m fortunate and very blessed,” Chunn said. “If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.”