Among the first things the funeral director does after receiving a call that someone has passed away, is to ask for the name and phone number of the person's doctor. If a person dies and had seen his or her doctor within twenty days prior to death, the doctor provides cause of death information and signs the death certificate electronically. Only after this is done, can a burial permit be generated and disposition (burial or cremation) take place. There is one exception, and that is when the death becomes a coroner's case.
The county coroner is the entity that handles deceased persons who die as a result of an accident, homicide, suicide, unexpectedly or under questionable circumstances. The coroner usually transports the person who has passed away, from the place of death, and delivers them to the coroner's office. There, an investigation takes place to determine the cause of death. In most cases, the funeral director is informed by the family, police or hospital staff, when a person is deemed a coroner's case. Oftentimes, the coroner questions the family and the person's doctors to obtain the history and circumstances surrounding the death. The coroner also reviews the medical records. A physical examination is done, blood and fluids are drawn for analysis and an autopsy is performed in many, but not all cases. An autopsy is a procedure whereby the internal organs are removed, examined and tested for cause of death determination.
In some counties, all deceased residents can not be buried or cremated until the coroner has given clearance. In Los Angeles County, the coroner gets involved only if a death is accidental, due to a criminal act, or the result of a suicide. Also questionable deaths, whereby a doctor is not sure why a person died, requires coroner's intervention. And if someone dies who had not seen their doctor within 21 days to six months prior to their passing, they become a coroner's case. They may not however, have to be transported to the coroner's office. The coroner can choose to come to the mortuary to do an examination and "sign out." If a decedent had not seen a doctor within six months, he or she would automatically become a coroner's case and be transported to the coroner's office for examination.
After the coroner's examination or autopsy, the cause of death is determined and entered electronically on the death certificate. There are instances where test results take a long time to secure. In these cases, a "Deferred" entry is made on the death certificate in the cause of death section, and the funeral services can go forward. Once the investigation is complete, the cause is recorded and the death certificate can be completed or amended with the actual cause of death. This process can take several months, and delays the settling of business affairs.
When coroner's involvement is necessary, there is the possibility that the person's funeral service would also have to be delayed. The delay when the decedent has to be taken to the coroner's office can be a matter of several days or even weeks, depending on the volume of cases the coroner's office is handling at that particular time. The delay can be several days when a "sign-out" from the mortuary is required. The funeral professional communicates regularly with the coroner's office staff and keeps the family informed as needed.
James Barker, our knowledgeable Lead Embalmer and Death Certificate Specialist, is available at the phone number below, if you have further questions about coroner's cases.
[Gail Valentine Taylor, M.S.W. Woods-Valentine Mortuary (626) 798-8941.]