What is a Medical Examiner?
For most of us, the only experience we’ve had with a medical examiner is what we’ve seen on TV or in movies.
But just what is that job and how is it different from a coroner?
The medical examiner is necessary when the cause of death needs to be determined because it was “sudden, unexpected, violent or suspicious.”
While most families will not encounter a medical examiner, in a small number of cases, a medical examiner or coroner will investigate the death of a loved one before they can be moved to, and cared for, by a funeral home.
A coroner’s duties are similar to the medical examiner’s, but the role, often a part of a sheriff’s department, has more of a law enforcement focus versus a medical or public health lens. Coroners usually are typically not physicians and not trained in medicine, forensic medicine or forensic science. Many larger cities have moved away from a coroner role to a medical examiner model as in Clark County, Washington.
While the ME or coroner’s office is a government agency, the funeral home is a private business serving families. The two often will communicate and coordinate, but they are separate entities with their own fees, rules and timelines.
Also, because laws are different in each area, you will want to contact the specific office you are dealing with if you have questions about your loved one’s death.
Despite what we see on TV, the ME doesn’t automatically perform an autopsy. They only perform autopsies where they feel they are necessary to determine the cause of death or if there is suspected criminal wrongdoing.
If a family doesn’t want an autopsy, the appropriate office should be contacted right away. While guided by state law, there may be cases where one is not needed or requests for religious exemptions may be accepted. For example, while families’ desires about autopsies are considered, Multnomah County says it is up to the Oregon State Medical Examiner as to whether certain procedures are necessary.
Depending on the jurisdiction where the office operates, there may be fees associated with the transportation of the person to the medical examiner’s office, but generally not the investigation itself (which is paid by taxpayer dollars). This is separate from the transportation fee that a funeral home typically charges to move someone from the medical examiner’s office into their care. Fees by the medical examiner’s office are waived in some cases.
Contact the appropriate office to determine the costs and learn whether the family will pay them directly to the government agency or later through the funeral home.
When an investigation is required and the cause of death is not immediately obvious, there may be delays in obtaining a death certificate and/or autopsy report. If toxicology is required, expect the timeline to be longer for a final cause of death.
In certain cases, the medical examiner may need help to identify a loved one. This is different from a viewing opportunity for families. A viewing is an informal opportunity for family and friends to view the body of a loved one, sometimes also called visitation. Most medical examiners and coroners are not set up for, and do not provide, viewings. Contact the office your loved one is being handled by or see their website for details. Sometimes viewings can be arranged later at a funeral home. Solace Cremation does not offer viewings.
While these offices do often require additional time, paperwork and payment, their goal is to better understand the health needs of their communities and to give some closure to the families they serve.
For more information, see these websites.
Medical Examiner’s Office, Clark County