In September, the local coroner asked county commissioners for more money. Seems his office was running out of body bags.

At Koscielski's Guns and Ammo, handgun sales this year have been brisk, but no match for the more than 2,000 T-shirts the store has sold since the city eclipsed its previous record for murders three months ago, the store's owner said. More cartoonish than sinister, the black shirts bear the image of a Grim Reaper-like character hovering over Minneapolis's distinctive skyline, blood dripping from a caption that reads: "Murderapolis; City of Wakes 1995."

Too many dead. The gallows humor of weary survivors. It has come to this for Minneapolis, this sober and much-admired mid-sized city on the Mississippi River that is struggling to get through the most murderous year in its history.

So far this year, Minneapolis has not just broken its record total for homicides -- 63 in 1991 -- it has all but obliterated it. The body count stood at 87 yesterday, an increase of nearly 75 percent over the same period a year ago and puts the city on a pace to top 100 homicides for the first time. The popular slogan coined by some cynics here is "95 in '95."

Those figures would more likely be cause for celebration than concern in many other of the nation's mid-sized and big cities such as Washington, Detroit and New York, where the number of homicides typically reaches the century mark by Easter. But in most metro areas across the country and in the nation as a whole the rate of homicides has fallen dramatically this year as crack cocaine's grip on poor, urban neighborhoods has loosened.

By contrast, Minneapolis seems to have been behind the murderous curve and is just now grappling with a level of violence that this city of 384,000 has never seen. This once-sleepy mill town known for its brittle cold, Scandinavian-style politeness, liberalism and a succession of likable runners-up -- Hubert H. Humphrey, Walter F. Mondale and the four-time Super Bowl losers Minnesota Vikings -- has been upended by a gravely different reality.

"There's always been this perception here that despite the cold and the winters we have a very good quality of life," said Judith Martin, director of the urban studies department at the University of Minnesota. "There was this belief . . . that we were safe. Well, now we're feeling what the rest of the country has been feeling for years and we just didn't anticipate this. It's been deeply traumatic."

How traumatic? Last spring the Hennepin County morgue was so overcrowded with bodies that on some days the hallways were crammed with corpses lying on steel gurneys parked outside occupied autopsy rooms.

"I came in here one morning last spring and we had nine bodies out in the corridor," said Michael Ridgely, a supervisor in the medical examiner's office.

By September, the overworked staff of 12 investigators and 12 forensic pathologists had exhausted the office's overtime budget and nearly all its supplies. Medical examiner Garry Peterson asked the county board for an additional $98,000 to pay for overtime and replenish supplies, including the $10 apiece for nylon bags used to store corpses.

Everyone, it seems, from prosecutors to paramedics, has complained they are overworked. The police department's 16 homicide detectives are so overwhelmed by their expanding workload that one city councilman questioned whether the city could afford to investigate every homicide.

"Like it or not . . . with our limited resources maybe we should just investigate the clearly random ones," Joseph Biernat told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in July.

No one can say for sure what is behind the crisis, particularly since the homicide rate in St. Paul, a city of about 270,000 just across the river, remains virtually unchanged. But police generally attribute the escalating figures to a familiar formula: handguns, drugs and idle young men. More specifically, police say Minneapolis is becoming a magnet for drug-dealing gang members from other cities where the illicit drug markets are saturated with street-level dealers and consequently have become more dangerous and less lucrative.

In Minneapolis, there still exist neighborhood turfs unclaimed by drug peddlers. While a rock of crack cocaine -- about an eighth of a gram -- sells for as little as $5 in cities like Washington and Baltimore, dealers here can get four times that, police say.

"We're seeing people from Gary {Ind.}, Detroit and Cleveland, and they're the ones who are both the perpetrators and the victims of these crimes," Police Chief Robert Olson said. "They may have been little fish at home but they are big fish here. There's an economic incentive for them to relocate."

Olson points out that the city's overall crime rate is down 4 percent this year, and the department plans to expand its complement of officers next year from about 880 to 917.

But the problem seems as elusive here as in other cities. In August, police began an aggressive crackdown on illegally owned handguns, and patrol officers seized 97 in that month from targeted neighborhoods. But the bleeding did not stop. August was the deadliest month in the city this year with 15 homicides, including four over a five-day stretch.

And in a city where black people make up around 13 percent of the population, the issue of race is very much at the center of Minneapolis's soul searching. After the city matched its record for homicides in August, Minneapolis's first African American mayor, Sharon Sayles Belton, made an emotional plea to African Americans to stop the violence.

One widely embraced theory here is that the Minnesota's traditionally progressive politics and relatively generous welfare benefits have fueled the escalating violence by attracting poor African Americans from other states. Sociologists generally believe that welfare has little, if anything, to do with the decision of most poor people to relocate here. But there persists a fear that the gunfire will only worsen if other states continue to whittle away at their public aid for poor families.

"This welfare thing is a problem," said George Bannigan, a government clerical worker who is white and says he and his wife are selling their home in south Minneapolis and moving to a northern suburb, in part because they are concerned about safety. "Wisconsin is cracking down on welfare, so they're all coming here."

For others, the solution is more complicated. According to a computer analysis of census data by the Star Tribune, people of color in the Twin Cities are more likely to be poor than those in any other metropolitan areas in the country, which for some underscores the chasm of opportunity that separates the races in this affluent community.

In the south Minneapolis neighborhood that is home to the Sabathani Community Center, the Bloods rule the once quiet streets of brick bungalows with enclosed porches where the only gangs a decade ago consisted of raccoons rummaging through trash bins.

Three weeks ago, schoolchildren at a nearby elementary school here watched as rival gang members engaged in a running gun battle one morning, said Michael Baker, who runs a job training program at the center.

"I think a lot of people here are in denial," said Baker, a sturdily built 28-year-old. "They can keep on blaming it on welfare all they want, and I guarantee nothing will change as long as the average African American male right here in this city can't see any kind of future for himself." CAPTION: RISING TALLY Minneapolis's homicide rate is well above the national average. If trends continue, the city may see 100 murders this year. 1991 63 1992 62 1993 58 1994 62 1995 87* *as of Nov. 24 SOURCE: Minneapolis Police Department CAPTION: Friends and relatives comfort each other as homicide victim is loaded into medical examiner's van in the background.