Death investigation is the most important aspect of a medical examiner, coroner, or death investigator’s basic professional duty. Death investigators play a key role in all types of death scenes; they contribute to the successful death scene investigation along with, but not limited to police officers, emergency personnel, hospital personnel, police detectives, forensic pathologists, funeral directors, and family members.
The death investigation team is extremely important to provide thorough and specialized services for the well-being and health of the general public. The ultimate success depends upon the knowledge and expertise of all these individuals combined.
What is a death investigation?
Simply stated, a death investigation is the procedure in which a death investigator determines the cause and manner of death. Death investigations are divided into four categories: natural, suicide, accident, and homicide. Also, “undetermined” can be, but rarely used.
The importance of death investigations has been well established since the Egyptians and Babylonians used their somewhat considerable knowledge of the human anatomy to record the cause of death, dating back as early as 1850 B.C.
In 44 B.C., a Roman physician examined the body of Julius Caesar and counted twenty-three stab wounds. He further stated that only one stab wound to the chest had been the fatal wound that took his life.
An interesting thirteenth century book from China, His Yuan Chi Lu, that means “the washing away of wrongs”, has been established as the oldest legal medicine book ever written. It has been compared to the “Instruction to Coroners” that outlines details and procedures in the investigations of suspicious deaths.
The development of forensic medicine in the United States was primarily established in 1883 with the beginning of a new medicolegal investigative system. In 1915, the actual title of “medical examiner” was established and implemented into investigations.
Currently, the field of forensic medicine utilizes many types of technology and computers to establish the manner and cause of death with specific detection tests. The standards of inspection and accreditation of the medical examiner’s offices that are currently used today was originally founded by Milton Helpern, M.D. with The National Association of Medical Examiners in 1966.
The history of death investigators has proved to be important in the process of death investigations and how they are completed today. However, death investigations are not only used for criminal cases such as homicide, but their duties also entail closer examination into accident prevention, substance abuse, child abuse, and motor vehicle accidents.
When is it necessary to contact a death investigator?
A death investigator should always be contacted for any death because it is their responsibility to determine the cause and manner of death, time of death, and signing of the death certificate.
The flow of death scene management begins when there is a death and an individual finds a body and calls the police. Emergency personnel arrive and the scene is then examined and aid is rendered if applicable. During this time, the death investigator, and if necessary a forensic pathologist, is contacted. The death investigator may examine the body at the actual scene before approving the removal of the body. Depending upon the circumstances of the death, the body may either be moved to the funeral home or morgue for an autopsy.
It is essential that death investigators develop good working relationships with the other death scene professionals. Once the death investigator is called, they may ask for a complete description of the scene and the condition of the body. After determining the facts of the death, the death investigator will decide if they will visit the death scene personally or wait until the body is moved to either a funeral home or morgue. However, the death investigator may ask questions over the phone or direct the caller to further investigation of the scene before making a final decision.
Here are some great books for more information about death investigation:
Coroner at Large
By Thomas T. Noguchi, M.D.
Crime Science, Methods of Forensic Detection
By John F. Fischer & Joe Nickell
Death Investigation: The Basics
By Brad Randall, M.D.
What the Corpse Revealed
By Hugh Miller