He’s seen death nearly every day for decades: Meet Horry County’s coroner and comforter

Q&A with Robert Edge, Horry County Coroner

A question and answer session with Robert Edge who has been the Horry County Coroner for nearly thirty years.
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A question and answer session with Robert Edge who has been the Horry County Coroner for nearly thirty years.

In her eyes, he is lying.

She can’t believe what he’s telling her family — her brother just burned to death after being in a wreck.

It’s 3 a.m., a cool fall night.

Horry County Coroner Robert L. Edge Jr. just left the scene of a car crash involving a teenage boy.

The teen was almost home — he crashed just around the corner from his family’s house. And his vehicle caught fire.

Edge drives a short distance to the home. Knocks on the door. And stands in the living room with the boy’s parents to deliver the news — gently, like he always does. It’s an approach he learned from a preacher.

He told the parents something like this: There’s been an accident involving your son, and when first responders got to the scene of the crash, your son’s vehicle had caught fire — he did not survive.

The talking in the living room woke the sister up — she heard the news from her room. She comes into the living room, hits Edge on the arm, saying he was lying. She didn’t want to believe it, he said.

Decades later, having signed nearly 10,000 death certificates, Edge still can’t forget that night.

Edge, 68, has been the county’s coroner for nearly 30 years. He’s not just someone who shows up to a scene with a dead body — he’s a comforter and investigator, too. And it never gets easier telling a family they’ve lost a loved one.

“You’ve got to be the rock that they lean on,” he said. “The most gratifying part of it is being able to sit down and be there for someone who has had a loss.

“The role I try to play is a comforter, for one, and also adhere to the laws. I feel like I can be a comforter and still do my job, too, and it goes back to how you approach people.”

Robert Edge regularly visits children’s graves at Hillside Cemetery. Edge has been the Horry County Coroner for nearly 30 years. Oct 24, 2018. Jason Lee jlee@thesunnews.com

People react differently to death. And Edge has to be ready for any and all reactions and emotions.

At the beginning of his career in the late ‘80s, he remembers an average of 150 calls per year, which he could do on his own. That number has jumped to about 2,000 per year due to the county’s growth, and the office has five deputy coroners.

* * *

A young Edge walks into a funeral home prep-room to grab something.

Then he sees it — a body cut open from an autopsy. He pauses a moment before walking any further.

It only takes one cut-open body for Edge to get acclimated to seeing a dead person.

“I’m thinking, ‘do you really want to go in there?’” he said. “After that, it never really bothered me.”

Thousands of cases later, Edge is conditioned. Seeing a body that has fallen multiple stories or one that’s been in a major car crash takes time, he said.

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A North Myrtle Beach native, he started working part time at a funeral home as a teen just out of high school. His father was a plumber and the first mayor of North Myrtle Beach, his mother a teacher.

“My parents gave us a good life,” he said. “We weren’t rich, but we didn’t miss any meals.”

The Robert Edge Parkway in North Myrtle is named after his father, and he has to remind folks the road bears his father’s name, not his.

He grew up fishing in Crescent Beach — something he still loves to do — and he has a sweet tooth for Krispy Kreme donuts. Previously married, he enjoys spending time with his step-grandchildren.

Edge graduated from Wampee High School, where he once was the basketball manager and was voted Most Dependable and the Jaycee Youth of the Year, according to the 1965 and 1968 Warpath yearbooks.

He went on to Horry-Georgetown Technical College before graduating from Kentucky School of Mortuary Science in Louisville.

His family still runs a motel in North Myrtle Beach — the Ocean Edge.

Yearbook photo of Robert Edge as “Jaycee Youth of the Year” at Wampee-Little River High School in 1968. Edge has been the Horry County Coroner for nearly 30 years. Nov 09, 2018. Jason Lee jlee@thesunnews.com

On the job

Sometimes he tells people he’s a paper shuffler, but he does perform investigations, specifically when he needs to find family members of a homeless person who has died or determine whether a death is suspicious and an autopsy should be done.

“I don’t think people realize how much our involvement is,” he said of working cases. “We’re there for the long haul. There’s a lot of follow-up.”

Chief Deputy Coroner Tamara Willard talks about working with Robert Edge.

He’s a great boss who gave chief deputy coroner Tamara Willard a chance in the early 2000s, she says. Willard first worked alongside Edge as a graduate student, counseling grieving families. Months later, he asked her to join as a deputy, and she’s been working with him ever since.

“I’ve learned everything from Robert,” Willard said. “He’s a good leader and sets a very good example. We (coroner’s deputies) are truly a reflection of him.”

Willard said Edge is respected, and someone she wants to make proud.

Edge has held two elected positions in the county. He served as a county councilman from 1983 to 1988, the year before he became coroner.

In his current position, state law says coroners are the only people who have the authority to arrest a sheriff if the sheriff commits a felony. Edge said he likes to joke with Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson that he’s keeping an eye on him.

Edge has won eight coroner elections, and has only been opposed in one election by one opponent. The process of working scenes has stayed the same through the years, other than evolving technology and fire rescue now extricating and placing bodies in bags, something Edge used to do.

Horry County Coroner Robert Edge shows off the new morgue space that allows his office to keep refrigerated remains until they can be claimed by family members.

He doesn’t use his blue lights in the unmarked Ford Crown Victoria he’s been driving for nearly a decade. It’s about being safe on the way to the scene, he says.

He claims when he was first elected, his office started as a shoebox operation. But the office has expanded, and is now going to almost 14 times the amount of calls he went to when he started.

One of the greatest additions to the facility is the office’s new morgue that holds 12 bodies, he said.

As for the 2020 election, Edge has not decided if he’ll run again.

* * *

The room smells like blood. It only takes a few hours before he starts to smell the decay.

It’s one of the nastiest scenes he’s ever seen on the job — the aftermath of a suicide in a Myrtle Beach hotel room.

A teenager had put a .30-‘06 rifle in his mouth.

“You wonder, why did he use such a powerful gun,” he said.

Edge looks at death differently than the average person — it’s something he deals with weekly. He’s conditioned to see a diverse range of dead bodies in any form or circumstance.

“I accept it easier than some people do,” Edge said. “Some people think when it’s your time, it’s your time. Some people think you create your time.”

Robert Edge has been the Horry County Coroner for nearly 30 years. Oct 24, 2018. Jason Lee jlee@thesunnews.com

Capt. John Harrelson with Horry County Police said Edge is compassionate with families and friends during what may be the most difficult times of their lives.

“We’ve always been able to have a dialogue and discuss cases … and work together to bring closure to families,” Harrelson said. “Mr. Robert has always been great to work with.”

During each case, Edge takes the family into consideration and is consistently passionate about each death, Harrelson said.

The closest cases to his heart involve child deaths that “didn’t have to happen.” Fifteen people under 17 years old died last year in Horry County — five were natural deaths, eight accidental, two suicides and one drug overdose.

The case he’ll never forget: Baby Boy Horry. The infant was left in a wooded area along Meadowbrook Road near Conway on Dec. 4, 2008. The unidentified baby was left by an unknown person, and almost 10 years later, the case is still unsolved.

“He looked perfect,” Edge said. “It’s just like he was put there and left — and that’s actually what happened.”

The hardest part: knowing children who die won’t have the experiences he had as a child, having fun, fishing.

“I bring some of it home, I sure do,” Edge said. “It’s mainly (cases with) small kids.”

Hannah Strong: 843-444-1765, @HannahLStrong