Coroners and Medical Examiners

Information about coroners, medical examiners and death investigations

Last updated: 10 November 2016

What does a coroner do?

The coroner determines the death of a person who has died suddenly or unexpectedly. They will usually be contacted if the circumstances related to a death are unnatural or unexplained.

If needed, the coroner conducts an official investigation into the death, known as a medico-legal death investigation, in accordance with state law. Be aware that the system for coroner investigations can differ from state to state, and between different jurisdictions.

Usually county coroners are elected and will work with pathologists or medical examiners to determine the cause of death.

What does a medical examiner do?

The meaning of the term ‘medical examiner’ can vary slightly between different states, but usually means an appointed forensic pathologist - a doctor who studies the cause of death by examining the body.

Although an autopsy is not always necessary, sometimes this can be essential to discover the cause of death. In these cases the coroner will contact a medical examiner or qualified pathologist to carry out the autopsy.

What is an autopsy?

The medical examiner, also sometimes referred to as the pathologist or forensic pathologist, is the medical professional who performs autopsies at the coroner’s request. Autopsies may also be called post-mortem examinations.

An autopsy involves looking at the body for clues as to what caused the death. This may involve surgical procedures or taking samples for testing.

An autopsy does not necessarily mean you cannot have an open casket funeral. Talk to your funeral director to find out what is the best choice for you

What is a death investigation?

The coroner or medical examiner will study the evidence to determine the cause of death of the person who has died. This may include performing an autopsy, viewing their medical records, carrying out lab work and collecting witness accounts.

The aim is to discover what exactly caused the death. Once established, this will be recorded in a coroner’s report or medical examiner’s report.

For more information, contact your local coroner’s office or speak to the staff at your chosen funeral home.