Death investigations are conducted by both the police and medical examiners or coroners. Each jurisdiction determines whether or not they have a coroner or medical examiner. A coroner is an elected official and may or may not be a medical doctor. A medical examiner is a medical doctor that has been hired by a city or county to conduct autopsies and investigate the cause of suspicious deaths.

The police are in charge of all murder scenes, but medical examiners and coroners are in charge of the body. Medical examiners and coroners do not interrogate suspects and detectives do not examine bodies.

Bodies are placed in body bags and delivered to the morgue in specially equipped vehicles.

Bodies are placed on gurneys and rolled onto scales where they’re weighed.

After weighing, the body is placed inside a cold room until autopsy. Black or dark gray, leak-resistant body bags are used  pre-autopsy. The paper bag resting on the body of the murder victim at the top of the photo contains the victim’s personal belongings.

Cold rooms also store amputated body parts. The gray trays on the right contain severed limbs. White, paper-like body bags, like the one lying on the gurney in the rear of the cold room above, are used post-autopsy for bodies waiting to be transported to funeral homes.

Don’t forget to stop by on Saturday and Sunday for The Weekend Road Trip

15 replies
  1. Terry
    Terry says:

    Great information again. And what’s even more heartening is that I don’t have to do a total rewrite after this confirmation of what I was pretty sure was right. And it’ll save me some money, because my usual research consists of buying a trio of homicide cops beer.

    When it gets scary is when I totally make stuff up and it turns out to be right, too.

  2. Peg H
    Peg H says:

    A neighbor’s brother had to wait for five months for the local Coroner’s office to sign off on his wife’s death certificate, however they did release the body for burial within a couple of days. The slow release of the death certificate was not because they were overcrowded or overworked, but because she was 57 and had no immediately obvious cause of death. She died at home. I’m supposing they ran every test known to man on tissue samples. blood etc. They finally issued her death certificate two days ago.

    Special note: make sure you get at least 15 death certificates…you need one to accompany each peice of paperwork.

    Lee, Hubby sends your wife his sympathies and says, pity him he has to live with me!

    Peg H 🙂

  3. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    I read Allison’s blog and she gave a pretty good account of what it’s like in the morgue.

    I’m going to continue this topic on Monday with more photos.

    If you think your husband’s worried, think of my poor wife. She has to live with me!

  4. mfmakichen
    mfmakichen says:

    Oops, excuse the typo in my previous post. It should be Sacramento County Coroner’s Office NOT Corner Office!

  5. mfmakichen
    mfmakichen says:

    Hey Lee,
    As always thanks for the great information. Writer Allison Brennan blogged yesterday at about her recent visit to the Sacramento County Corner’s Office. It was intertesting to read about her impressions–an autopsy was being performed when she was there.

    I also had to tell you that I pulled my husband over to the computer and showed him your photo. . .the one of you with what was it a semi-automatic in your hand. I said, “Here’s a photo of this great guy I met at a writer’s conference.” He’s worried now about the dangerous characters that attend these writer conferences:).–Mary-Frances

  6. BeckyLevine
    BeckyLevine says:

    This makes a lot of sense. It really is two jobs, the police job and the medical. So, even if there’s a medical examiner, someone has to do the police part of the death, too. Cool, thanks.

  7. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    No one said this was an efficient system! 🙂

    A coroner signs the death certificate based on the information presented to him/her.

    It’s not really a department that has a coroner, it’s the county. Local law dictates which system is in place.

    I’ll refer back to the Idaho coroner system. Here’s their state’s description of the coroner’s duties:

    Q: Who Is The Coroner?
    A: The Idaho County Coroner is an elected position. The Coroner serves to investigate deaths in which certain circumstances, which are defined by Idaho Code, have occurred. The Coroner determines in each of those cases the manner and cause of death and, if necessary, holds an Inquest and determine the facts as to how, when, where and by what means the deceased came to his death.

    Q: Why Is A Coroner Called When Death Is Due To Natural Causes?
    A: The Coroner investigates many types of deaths, such as those due to foul play, suicide and accidents. However, he must also investigate natural deaths when they fall under certain criterion. For instance deaths that:

    are sudden and unexpected
    are from illness not under treatment or not attended by a qualified physician
    occur in certain types of institutions
    raise questions that can only be answered fairly after an investigation.

    Q: How Do I Obtain A Death Certificate?
    A: Generally, the Funeral Home handling the funeral service will provide a Death Certificate. A family member may also contact the Idaho State Vital Statistic Office and request one. There is a fee for each copy obtained.

    Q: Is Consent Required For a Medical-Legal Autopsy?
    A: No. Autopsies often help answer questions regarding hereditary aspects of diseases, and the findings can have important implications for estate and insurance purposes. An Autopsy also prevents anxiety from not knowing what actually caused a death. If there are objections the Coroner will explain the need for the Autopsy, but consent is not required.

    Q: Who Performs The Autopsy?
    A: The Coroner directs a qualified specialist in Pathology to conduct the examination and may request special examination of particular organs or fluids by other experts.

    Q: Will An Autopsy Delay Funeral Arrangements?
    A: In general the answer is no. However, if there is a portion of the investigation, for example identification, which may cause delay, your Funeral Director will advise you as to timing of viewing arrangements, etc.

    Q: Will There Be An Inquest?
    A: Inquests are held on all persons that have been involved with a Law Enforcement Officer at the time of his death. Inquests can also be held at the Coroner’s discretion. The Coroner may hold an Inquest when certain circumstances relating to a death need to be brought to the attention of the public, or when the identity of the deceased, the date, place or cause of death has not been established or when it is unknown how a death occurred.

    Q: If There Is An Inquest, Does The Family Have To Attend?
    A: Not unless a member has been called to be a witness.

  8. BeckyLevine
    BeckyLevine says:

    I’ve always been curious why a department would have a coroner, instead of an ME. I know you’ve told me this, but who signs the death certificate in that case? What jobs does a Coroner do, when they’re not the doctor? It seems less practical, less efficient, but maybe I’m just missing something.

  9. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    If the coroner is not a medical doctor, he/she hires a pathologist to perform the autopsies.

    A coroner is an elected official. In many areas that means they’re not required to have any experience in the field. In some areas, the county sheriff is the coroner. In other states, the qualifications of a county coroner are minimal, at best. Here’s Idaho’s requirement list:

    TITLE 34
    election, 1986, and every four (4) years thereafter, a coroner shall be
    elected in every county.
    (2) No person shall be elected to the office of coroner unless he has
    attained the age of twenty-one (21) years at the time of his election, is a
    citizen of the United States and shall have resided within the county one (1)
    year next preceding his election.
    (3) Each candidate shall file his declaration of candidacy with the
    county clerk.
    (4) Each candidate who files a declaration of candidacy shall at the same
    time pay a filing fee of forty dollars ($40.00) which shall be deposited in
    the county treasury.

    Basically, anyone who’s twenty-one and has forty bucks in his pocket can become coroner.

  10. jentalty
    jentalty says:

    Ok – so if your local area has a Coroner instead of a ME and that Coroner is not a medical doctor – who does the autopsy? And don’t some counties borrow ME’s from other counties?

    I have to say, when I first came here this morning and saw the feet with the tag my first thought was ‘bag em and tag em’ and I laughed. I’m so twisted.

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