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Rowan County Coroner John Northcutt directs various Morehead emergency responders at the scene of a fatal crash on Cranston Road. John clambered down a ladder into the ravine to inspect the body of the driver, Zachary Plank, who was the only person in the car. "That was a rough situation, getting the car off of him. He was more than likely intoxicated," John later told a news reporter.

Death and life

story by Matthew Merchant

An alert pierces the silence on the radio.

There’s a car crash 10 miles out on Highway 377 just north of Morehead, driver dead on impact.

Rowan County Coroner John Northcutt hears the call in the middle of dinner. His wife Tina nods in understanding.

John knows the driver. He seems to know everyone in Morehead. In life, he knows their names. In death, he remembers their lives.

"We buried that boy's grandmother, grandfather, most of his family. My dad's buried them all. That family knows me very well," John says, racing down winding back roads in a black Dodge Charger, lights and sirens blaring.

As coroner, director of Northcutt & Son Home for Funerals and assistant fire chief, John knows death. When the phone rings, John answers. Even at home with Tina and 11-year-old daughter Natalie, the phone never stops. At 1 a.m. after a long day of burials and services, a mobile home down the road catches fire.

John grabs his fireman's helmet and heads back into the flames. He'll likely take care of that body, too.

"I've had a lot of close friends that I've had to pull out of cars or burning buildings. I try not to let it get me down. I just think, these people elected me to do a job and I'm going to do it," he says.

With his house less than a mile away, John can get to the funeral home quickly. "If I get a call in the middle of the night, I can be there in a minute. Suited up, ready to go," he says.

It's been a cycle of life and death like this for 24 years. Two daughters have grown and moved away, but Natalie looks ahead at taking over the funeral business.

For now, John's happy to spend as much time with family and friends as he can between calls. Steak dinners and relaxing evenings with Natalie at the piano are a small escape of laughter and happiness away from death.


John takes a call as he tries to put on a color-coordinated tie. When John told his wife Tina that he planned to run for county coroner in 1993, he said "I'm pretty busy with the funeral home. I don't think I've got time to be coroner." He later won in a landslide.


Conner Jewell (left) watches as John Northcutt, funeral director of Northcutt & Son Home for Funerals, outlines a gravesite to be dug for Anna Kiser. The site was located next to her husband Joe's gravesite.


John (right), director of Northcutt & Son Home for Funerals, meets to arrange photos with the Jett family, Jonathan Jett and Nicholas Jett (bottom), Northcutt assistant Tanya Brown (top left), Johnny Jett (center). Johnny, the host of DIY Network's "Barnwood Builders," plans the funeral of his son, Johnny "Eugene" Jett. John regularly meets with families to arrange specific details of a funeral service.


John sits on the couch with his dog, Puff, after a long day at work as Rowan County Coroner and director at Northcutt & Son Home for Funerals. "When I get home, I like to sit back and watch the news to decompress," he says.


John holds his daughter Natalie's hand during a ride on a Honda Pioneer 1000 after a stressful day at work. John's wife Tina often sits in the passenger seats during short rides around the neighborhood.


John pours chemicals into an embalming fluid mixture inside the embalming room before starting the process. The room, which is used to prepare bodies before a showing, contains makeup, chemicals and sterilized equipment.


John eats dinner at Reno's Roadhouse as his daughter Natalie enoys her favorite potato soup. As coroner and assistant fire chief of the Morehead Fire Department, John always carries his walkie-talkie, which he put on the table in case a call came in. During this meal, a call came in and the family left so he could to work. "He never stops, not even to eat," says John's mother Helen.


Natalie smiles as John tucks her into bed. As coroner and assitant fire chief., John is often working or on-call. Despite the constant workflow, John spends quality time with Natalie. "I'm definitely a daddy's girl," says Natalie.


Rowan County Coroner John Northcutt visits the scene of a fatal crash on Cranston Road. Northcutt clambered down a ladder into the ravine to inspect the body of the driver, Zachary Plank, who was the only person in the car. "It's like this all the time for me," he says. "You just go right on, try not to let it get to you."

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