One of the elements around death which is mysterious to many is what happens when a death is designated as a Coroner’s case. Read on to find out more…
Freeman Brothers has been carrying out funerals in Sussex and Surrey since 1855. As we have been so long established as Funeral Directors, we have a good sense of some of the most common questions people have around funerals. Taking feedback from colleagues in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint as to what we are asked frequently, we have produced a series of blog posts addressing some of these issues.
Today, we will be looking at what happens when someone has died and the death is designated as a Coroner’s case – why this happens and what differences it makes to the funeral.
It may sound strange, but knowing why someone has died is a legal requirement. Every death has to have a cause. Most people die as a result of an illness, and these deaths are usually what is known as ‘expected’. What that means is that a doctor who has been treating them for this illness, and knows the cause of death, is prepared to complete statutory paperwork (called the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death, or MCCD) to this effect. All other deaths will be Coroner’s cases, whether they are natural deaths – such as if a person dies of a heart attack or an undiagnosed illness – or caused by an accident, murder, or suicide. Just because someone has been unwell, it therefore doesn’t follow that their death is expected. If a person is being treated in hospital for, let’s say, cancer, and then appears to die following a seizure, the doctor(s) who have been treating them may not be confident as to what has caused that death and so a referral would be made to the Coroner’s Office for further investigation.
The Coroner will have a team of Coroner’s Officers who investigate all deaths referred to the Coroner’s Office. The first thing they will do is establish whether the death is actually unexpected. It might be that the person died at home but that this was following outpatient treatment from a Hospice or a recent hospital discharge, and that a doctor there is prepared to provide the cause of death and therefore complete the MCCD. However, investigation may also reveal that there is no such doctor, or the circumstances of the death will make it clear that the death is unexpected, and then the further investigatory work begins. This typically involves an examination of the body. Often this will be in the form of a post-mortem, where the internal organs and tissues will be looked at and possibly samples taken. After this has concluded, the cause of death will probably be established, the death will be classified as ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ and the body will be released for a funeral. It is important to note that this process might take several weeks, particularly if there is a likelihood of criminal proceedings. No-one can do anything to expedite such investigation, or prevent a post-mortem from taking place, and the person will not be able to have their funeral until the Coroner’s Office is satisfied that they have all the information they need.
‘Natural’ deaths – those where the person has died of an illness, even if it was not known that they were suffering from it – do not require any further action. The funeral can proceed as wished, although there will be differences in the paperwork. The main one of these is the lack of MCCD, which in expected deaths is handed to the Registrar for their purposes. Where the Coroner has been involved, the Officer dealing with the case will provide the relevant Registrar with alternative paperwork instead, which still enables the death to be registered. In the case of a cremation, the Crematorium will receive paperwork directly from the Coroner’s Office instead of the Funeral Director providing Cremation Papers completed by a doctor treating the person who has died.
‘Unnatural’ deaths – which include accidents, murders and suicides – will require an inquest, which is to determine the circumstances leading to the death. Their purpose is not to ascribe blame but to provide a verdict. A funeral cannot take place until the inquest has been opened, so they will usually be opened and adjourned as a formality. This enables the funeral to take place and the formal inquest can then take place at a future point, usually a few months after the death. In this intervening period, the Coroner’s Office will issue the Certificate of the Fact of Death, which is usually called the interim death certificate. This confirms that the person has died and enables you to start dealing with their affairs, because you will not receive the true Death Certificate until after the inquest has concluded.
Some deaths will automatically have an inquest. For example, any death in custody requires investigation even if the person was unwell and the cause of their death is known. This is also true of some industrial diseases, although there may not be a need for a post-mortem if certain investigative work has been carried out before the person died. The most common industrial disease where this applies is following exposure to asbestos, and, in this case, if the person has had a tissue sample taken before their death, this is all that is usually required in the way of an examination.
Inquests can be difficult for the family and friends of the person who has died, but have to take place. The Coroner’s Courts Support Service is an independent voluntary organisation which aims to help people who have to attend an inquest, and they can be contacted for specific advice and support if needed.
An unexpected death is often felt to be more traumatic than one where the person has been unwell, and it’s certainly true that there might be factors which lead to more complicated feelings, such as the fact that there hasn’t been a chance to resolve any unsaid matters or to say goodbye. However, all deaths can lead to feelings of many different types and all natural responses to any type of death, whether that be sadness, relief, or acceptance, are normal.
The last important piece of information on this topic is that some deaths are initially deemed Coroner’s cases by accident. This is if an ambulance is called, for example if a person is found dead, when it was known that they were unwell and likely to die. It may seem a natural response to alert the emergency services but this commences a chain of events which includes a preliminary Coroner’s investigation – and, probably, the person who has died being taken to a Public or Hospital Mortuary. If you are told that someone is likely to die soon, then you should also be told what you should do if and when it happens – the advice will usually be to call the Doctor or Out-of-Hours service. Make sure you have noted this and follow that advice – it is often a cause of significant distress to the people close to the person who has died that their actions have inadvertently started this procedure when that was never intended. We often receive calls from people who have been given bad news that someone is to die soon, and we can advise what next steps should be when this happens. As in all cases, our advice is free and very willingly given.
If there are any questions about unexpected deaths, or any other matter, please do feel free to contact us and we will do our best to assist.
Tel: 01403 254590
If you have an urgent query, please call 01403 254590. This number is answered by one our staff 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is the quickest way to reach us.
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