When a person passes away, the first step is for a doctor to confirm the cause of death. They must provide a medical certificate detailing the cause of death, as well as a formal notice confirming that they have signed the medical certificate and explaining how to register the death. However, if the cause of death is not clear, the doctor must report the death to the coroner and write on the formal notice that this is what they have done.
Who is the coroner?
The coroner is a doctor or lawyer; their role is to investigate a death for a number of reasons including: if the deceased had not been visited by a medical practitioner during their final illness, if the death was sudden, violent, unnatural or the result of an industrial disease, if the cause is unknown, if it happened under suspicious circumstances or if it happened in police custody, in prison or during an operation. The coroner will decide if there needs to be a post-mortem or an inquest and will arrange for them to be carried out if necessary.
What is a post-mortem?
A post-mortem is a medical examination of a body which is carried out to determine the cause of death. It will not normally delay when you can hold a funeral.
The coroner usually arranges and pays for the body to be moved from where the person died to where the post-mortem will be carried out. They will have a contract with a funeral director to carry this out, but relatives can then choose their own funeral director following the post-mortem.
The coroner does not need the permission of relatives to carry out a post-mortem, but relatives are entitled to know where and when it will be, can have a doctor present if they so choose, and can request that the coroner chooses a pathologist not connected to the hospital their loved one died in to carry it out.
If the post-mortem shows that the person died of natural causes, a Pink Form B (or form 100B) is issued allowing the death to be registered, as well as a certificate for cremation if the body is going to be cremated.
What is an inquest?
An inquest is held if the cause of death was unknown, if it was violent or unnatural, if it was caused by an industrial disease or if the person died in prison or police custody.
Inquests are held in public and are inquiries set up to establish the facts relating to the cause and circumstances of a death. They do not seek to blame anyone for a death, but aim to be thorough, impartial and help families answer any questions they have regarding a death. They sometimes have a jury, but are not a trial. It is the coroner’s role to decide what is best in each situation for the relatives of the person who has died and for the public.
The coroner must inform the person’s spouse (or nearest relative if they do not have a spouse) and the person’s executor or personal representative. Certain people are allowed to go to the inquest to question the witnesses about the cause and circumstances of the death.
For inquests that take a long period of time, the coroner can issue a letter or an ‘interim certificate of the fact of death’ to allow relatives to notify various organisations, such as banks. If the body is not needed for further examination, the coroner will issue an ‘order for burial’ or ‘certificate for cremation’ to allow relatives to organise the funeral.
Once the inquest is complete, the coroner will send a ‘certificate after inquest’ to the registrar, stating the cause of death and allowing them to register the death.
For more information about what to do following a bereavement, please read our article.