You’ve very likely heard of coroners before. But while many people understand coroners play an essential role after a death, they don’t necessarily understand their specific duties.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is a Coroner?
- What Are the Qualifications to Become a Coroner?
- Is There a Difference Between a Coroner and a Medical Examiner?
- Why or When Does a Death Go to the Coroner?
- Who’s Responsible for Calling a Coroner?
- What Do Coroners Do at a Crime or Death Scene?
- What Are a Coroner’s Duties After the Death Scene?
If you’re one of those people—don’t worry. Cop shows and medical dramas don’t exactly offer a thorough (or even accurate, in some cases) depiction of coroners. Unless you work in this field or know someone who does, it makes sense to have some questions about the job.
The following guide will answer at least a few of your questions. Keep reading to better understand what exactly a coroner does.
What Is a Coroner?
Coroners are typically government employees. They assist in certain important tasks when a person has died in a violent, unexpected, or suspicious manner. Depending on the jurisdiction in which a coroner operates, they may have additional powers beyond those most would associate with this role.
Further down, this guide will explain in greater detail the duties a coroner may have. That said, it's worth noting that a coroner's duties can vary substantially from one jurisdiction to another. There is no universal set of responsibilities for everyone with the title of coroner.
In general, a coroner helps identify bodies, determine the cause of death when it is not immediately clear how a person may have died, and maintain death records.
A coroner often works with law enforcement when it is clear someone has been murdered, or it appears they may be a murder victim. However, these are not the only instances when the services of a coroner may be valuable.
For example, when massive natural disasters occur, it is not uncommon for many bodies to initially go unidentified. In such circumstances, keeping death records can also be a challenging task.
These are situations in which a coroner's expertise can play an important role in identifying bodies and keeping track of deaths.
Sometimes, coroners also essentially play the same role that one's attending physician would play after death. This is particularly common in the US. For instance, if someone dies far from home and their physician can't certify the death, the coroner of the jurisdiction the person died in will certify the death instead.
Coroners can also have duties unrelated to death in some parts of the country. For example, coroners may sometimes determine if living people suffer from mental illness in Louisiana. In other states, coroners can even execute arrest warrants, giving them many of the same powers of a sheriff or other such law enforcement official.
Some coroners even have the power to arrest sheriffs themselves. In fact, historically, the role of a coroner partially involved serving as a check against the powers of law enforcement. It ensured that another official could prevent sheriffs and other such law enforcement figures from abusing their authority.
What Are the Qualifications to Become a Coroner?
Just as the duties of a coroner can vary somewhat widely from one state to another, so can the qualifications one must possess to become a coroner.
This guide will focus primarily on the qualifications necessary to become a coroner in the US. The role of a coroner can be quite different in other parts of the world. As such, the training one must undergo to fill this role is inconsistent throughout the globe.
Even within the US, there is no single set of qualifications that coroners must have. This is because individual states and counties get to make their own decisions regarding who can and who can't be a coroner.
On top of that, some jurisdictions may appoint a coroner to the position. They will review a candidate's qualifications and determine if they are a good fit for this role. However, there are jurisdictions where a coroner is an elected official.
There are parts of the country where someone does not need to have any relevant training to serve as a coroner. In other parts of the country, someone may only serve as a coroner or medical examiner if they are a forensic pathologist.
In most areas, someone should at least be a physician to be a coroner (assuming they are in a part of the country where a coroner and medical examiner are the same). In various counties and states, a physician does not need to actually have experience practicing or even studying forensic medicine to serve in this position.
There are even parts of the country where a coroner may fill their role because they already serve as another type of local official. In Nebraska, for instance, a county's district attorney will typically be that county's coroner. Again, this means someone without forensic medicine experience may fill this position. In most California counties, the coroner's and sheriff's offices have merged, meaning the sheriff is also the county coroner.
Many don't realize that some jurisdictions don't even have coroners. Consider the example of New York City. In New York, no one has served in the coroner's office since 1915. This is because up until that year, one did not have to have medical expertise to serve as a coroner. As a result, those who served in the position often abused their power.
NYC did away with the coroner's office in response to these abuses. Now, NYC only has medical examiners.
Is There a Difference Between a Coroner and a Medical Examiner?
As the standards and criteria for serving as a coroner vary, the difference between a coroner and a medical examiner depends on which state or county you happen to be in.
Again, there are some areas where a person can only serve as a medical examiner if they are a forensic pathologist. In other parts of the country, a medical examiner must be a physician, but specializing in forensic pathology or having a strong understanding of forensic medicine is not a requirement.
In certain jurisdictions, the duties and responsibilities of a coroner and medical examiner overlap to such a degree that a coroner and medical examiner are one and the same. That's not always the case.
For example, coroners tend to conduct fieldwork. They may handle tasks like investigating the scene of someone's death, recovering medical records, and identifying and interviewing any witnesses who may be able to provide information to determine the cause of a death.
To handle such tasks, one does not necessarily need to be a medical expert. Those with a background in law enforcement often possess the qualifications to serve as coroners in jurisdictions where performing field work is a coroner's primary responsibility.
In such jurisdictions, coroners tend to be elected officials separate from medical examiners. While the coroner may handle the fieldwork, they will coordinate with the medical examiner. The medical examiner's expertise can play a critical role in helping them determine precisely how someone died.
Coroners without medical experience and training point out that having a separate coroner and medical examiner can be valuable. They explain the autopsy process alone doesn't always provide enough information to help law enforcement solve a case when someone may have died from foul play.
Why or When Does a Death Go to the Coroner?
You may have guessed by now that the reasons for a death going to a coroner will vary depending on where a death occurs. To reiterate, deaths generally go to coroners when an individual's body is not immediately identifiable, when someone died suddenly, or when there's reason to believe a body may be that of a murder victim. Deaths also go to coroners after natural disasters to ensure someone is responsible for identifying the deceased and keeping death records.
Sometimes, a death will go to a coroner if the deceased does not usually live in the area where they died. Remember, someone needs to officially certify a death. Suppose someone dies away from their home and their physician or an attending physician from their part of the country can't certify a death in a timely manner. In that case, a coroner might handle this task instead.
Other potential reasons deaths may go to a coroner will, as always, vary from one jurisdiction to another. For example, in some jurisdictions, virtually all deaths involving vehicular accidents must go to the coroner. Deaths involving narcotics may also require a coroner's autopsy or investigation in certain jurisdictions.
Who’s Responsible for Calling a Coroner?
The circumstances of a death will often play a significant role in determining who is responsible for contacting a coroner upon discovering a body. Because coroners tend to investigate deaths that appear to have been violent or suspicious in nature, usually, law enforcement will refer a death to the coroner’s office. Again, there are also many parts of the country where the coroner’s office is part of a law enforcement office.
In such areas, no one may actually “call” the coroner. For example, when the coroner is also the sheriff, they will investigate certain types of deaths by the very nature of their role. Thus, the coroner will be investigating such deaths by default.
There are other instances when someone else may contact a coroner after discovering a body. Sometimes, whoever happens to be the first person to find a body may be the one to call a coroner. This can be a family member, a doctor, or even a nursing home manager.
However, these cases are usually rare. In most instances, when someone discovers a body, they will merely call the police. It is then up to members of law enforcement to determine whether it’s necessary to involve the coroner’s office.
What Do Coroners Do at a Crime or Death Scene?
The cops aren’t the only ones who show up to investigate death scenes. Coroners are usually involved as well.
What a coroner does at a death scene can vary depending on the nature of the death. In general, however, they begin their investigations.
Their key duties include the following.
Coroners often help to officially determine the identity of someone who has recently passed. How they do so differs on a case-by-case basis.
In some instances, a coroner will ask a family member to confirm the deceased’s identity. That said, this isn’t always an option.
Consider a crime or accident scene where the coroner doesn’t have much evidence to work with aside from some bones, teeth, or other parts. In such cases, a coroner will reach out to other experts to analyze the evidence and determine a victim’s identity.
It’s worth noting that a coroner doesn’t always identify the deceased at the crime or death scene. If a family member is already at the scene, they typically will. However, in cases such as the one described above, they’ll need to continue working elsewhere to complete the process.
Again, coroners often rely on evidence when determining a victim’s identity. As later points will explain, they also use evidence to determine both the cause and manner of death.
That means they need to collect that evidence at a crime scene. Sometimes, they also need to decide if they can move the deceased’s body without destroying or contaminating the evidence.
Everyone at the scene must avoid interfering with it before the coroner has completed their initial investigation. Along with helping coroners determine a person’s identity, pathological evidence can play a major role in future criminal investigations and trials.
The evidence a coroner collects usually consists of body parts and related materials. They’ll also sometimes collect or reference any evidence that might help them during their investigation.
For example, they might look at the scene of a potential murder and think a murderer could have used certain items at the scene to commit the crime. The coroner will examine both them and the body to determine if this was the case.
On top of collecting evidence, a coroner will sometimes conduct interviews with anyone who may have witnessed a death.
Although this can come later in the investigation, coroners will often at least begin interviewing potential witnesses at the scene itself. They want to make sure witnesses provide the most accurate information possible. If a coroner waits too long to conduct interviews, witnesses may forget or misremember key details.
What Are a Coroner’s Duties After the Death Scene?
A coroner’s job doesn’t end after they finish their work at the death scene. Coroners usually complete their investigations later on. When doing so, they’ll complete these essential tasks:
Determine the cause of death
Sometimes a coroner can fairly easily determine how someone died at the death scene itself. However, when the cause of death isn’t obvious, they continue investigating it at their facilities.
This usually involves performing an autopsy. A coroner will search for clues telling them how a person died. These can include signs of injury or illness.
There are instances when coroners determine the cause of death without performing an autopsy. However, research shows that their findings are often inaccurate when this happens.
This is a key reason coroners should always perform autopsies when the cause of death is unclear. Determining the cause of death helps coroners with their next task: determining the manner of death.
Confirming the manner of death
Coroners usually classify the manner of death as homicide, suicide, accident, natural, or undetermined. Again, performing an autopsy often helps them reach their conclusions during this stage.
Coroners must accurately determine the manner of death for clear and understandable reasons. First of all, family members naturally want to know why someone died. Even if they are unhappy with the news, understanding the nature of a loved one’s death does bring some degree of peace in most cases.
That’s why you should make sure you know what to do when someone dies. You need to contact the right people as soon as possible. If you delay even briefly, some of the evidence might degrade, or someone might interfere with it. This can prevent the coroner from easily or accurately determining the manner of death.
(Keep in mind that a coroner’s investigation is often a reason for delaying a funeral after death. Loved ones might want them to complete their investigation before laying someone to rest.)
Of course, giving loved ones a sense of peace isn’t the only reason coroners emphasize accuracy. Determining the manner of death also helps law enforcement figure out if someone committed a crime. Police don’t always know right away if someone was the victim of a murder.
For example, sometimes murderers try to cover their tracks by killing someone in such a way that a casual observer might assume they committed suicide. However, a coroner can often find clues that prove otherwise.
They might determine that the location of a wound in a gunshot victim would be virtually impossible if they had shot themselves. A coroner could find that someone had forced a victim to consume a toxic substance to make their death resemble a suicide or overdose. A coroner might even find signs that prove what looks like an accident actually isn’t one.
For instance, maybe a criminal covers up a murder by first rendering their victim unconscious before dropping the body off a bridge or tall building. Again, they are trying to make the death look like a suicide.
If the coroner finds evidence that lets them know the victim was knocked unconscious before the fall, they’ll let the police know suicide is unlikely.
Coordinating with others
A coroner will draft a report after finishing their investigation. This report explains the cause and manner of death. Often, they don’t continue working on cases very much after this, moving on to the next case.
Sometimes, they need to be more involved. If they determine someone was murdered, they need to coordinate with police to help in their investigation. They might also testify or work with district attorneys during trials.
There are some instances when a coroner needs to work with government officials, too. For example, if a coroner determines that someone died as a result of a dangerous virus or exposure to toxic chemicals, they’ll need to alert certain local government figures and law enforcement.
This is key to making sure everyone is doing everything they can to prevent future deaths. In these cases, a coroner may also address the public. At the very least, they’ll provide government figures with the information they need to address the public accurately.
An Important Job After a Death
By now, you probably have a better understanding of why coroners play such an important role in society. They don’t merely collect information about deceased people.
They make sure everyone involved understands how and why someone died. For many reasons, ranging from helping loved ones move on to catching criminals, that’s essential.
- Donovan, John. “How Are Coroners and Medical Examiners Different?” How Stuff Works, How Stuff Works, 31 March 2021, Science.howstuffworks.com
- Nashelsky, Marcus B. and Christopher H. Lawrence. “Accuracy of Cause of Death Determination Without Forensic Autopsy Examination.” ResearchGate, American Journal of Forensic Medicine & Pathology, January 2004, Researchgate.net
- “Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America.” Frontline, WGBH Educational Foundation, Pbs.org
- West, Robert. “Coroner's Report.” Harvard Medicine, The President and Fellows of Harvard College, Hms.harvard.edu
- “What Are the Duties of a County Coroner” Indiana.gov, State of Indiana, Faqs.in.gov
- “What is a Coroner?” CrimeSceneInvestigatorEDU.org, Crime Scene Investigator EDU, Crimesceneinvestigatoredu.org
- “What is a coroner?” New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator, The University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, Omi.unm.edu