Medical Examiner Information for Families

Why is the Medical Examiner investigating my loved one’s death?

Michigan law mandates that each county have a Medical Examiner. In Michigan, a Medical Examiner must be a Physician, and is appointed by the county commissioners.

The Office of the Medical Examiner works cooperatively with, but is completely independent of, law enforcement. The Medical Examiner is required to investigate all deaths which occur outside the attendance of a Physician, and all deaths that may be due to a non-natural cause. Examples of this include deaths at home, deaths related to criminal violence, deaths due to accidental or self-inflicted injury, deaths due to poisoning or drug overdose, and others. The Medical Examiner is also responsible for confirming the identity of deceased human remains.

The ultimate goal of the Medical Examiner is to accurately determine the cause and manner of death. This can often be accomplished without an autopsy. The decision to perform an autopsy is solely that of the Medical Examiner.

What are the cause and manner of death?

Cause of death: the underlying disease or injury which led to death

Manner of death: the circumstance under which the cause of death happened. In Michigan, there are five options:

  • Natural: death resulted solely from natural disease processes
  • Accident: death resulted as an unintended consequence of a specific action or event
  • Suicide: death resulted from self-inflicted injury or poisoning
  • Homicide: death resulted from injury or poisoning intentionally inflicted by another person. It’s important to note that our definition of homicide is not the same as the criminal offense of murder. For the Medical Examiner, homicide is death at the hands of another person. As a manner of death, “homicide” does not indicate either way whether a crime was committed.
  • Indeterminate: there exists equally compelling evidence to support two or more of the above manners of death
What’s next?

In many cases, further examination at the Office of the Medical Examiner is not required; the death scene investigation is often sufficient to rule out non-natural causes of death. In such cases, your loved one will be released directly from the death scene to the funeral home chosen by the person of highest priority in accordance with Michigan law, usually the legal next of kin. If further examination is required, your loved one will be transported from the death scene to Sparrow Hospital. Typically, the postmortem examination is performed the following day and your loved one will be released from our facility immediately afterward to the chosen funeral home. Though many deaths investigated by the Medical Examiner are unexpected by the family, it is important to select a funeral home quickly. Delay in funeral home selection may result in unnecessary transport/storage costs, and may adversely affect the funeral director’s ability to prepare your loved one for funeral viewing. If you are unsure where to start in your search for a funeral home, the Michigan Funeral Directors Association maintains a database of its member funeral homes, which can be searched by location and name.

What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is a medical procedure performed by a Physician, specifically a Pathologist, with the utmost care and respect for your loved one. In Michigan, a forensic autopsy is performed under the authority of the county Medical Examiner (as per MCL 52.201 et seq.) in order to determine the cause and manner of death, and possibly to aid in identification of deceased remains. A forensic autopsy includes a thorough external and internal examination of a deceased body, and may include toxicology and other testing.

An autopsy will not change your loved one’s suitability for viewing during funeral services.

On occasion, more thorough examination of a specific organ or organs is required. In such cases, you will receive written notice from us, via your funeral director, of what organ(s) were retained, and further information about how to have them returned if desired.

Who pays for a forensic autopsy?

The Medical Examiner directs the performance of a forensic autopsy with his or her authority under Michigan law, and does not require consent of the next of kin or family. As such, families are not charged for this service.

If you have concerns about why an autopsy was ordered, please express those immediately to the investigator assigned to your loved one’s case. We are available to address and alleviate any concerns you may have.

Death certificates

Death certificates are filed by the chosen funeral director at the County Clerk’s Office in the county in which death occurred. For all cases in which a postmortem examination is performed, and all non-natural deaths, the Medical Examiner or a Deputy Medical Examiner will sign the medical portion of the death certificate. For natural deaths not requiring a postmortem examination, the Office of the Medical Examiner and chosen funeral home will work together to facilitate death certification by your loved one’s primary care Physician. Typically, your funeral director will arrange getting you copies of the death certificate but copies are also always available at the County Clerk’s Office.

“Pending” death certificates

Sometimes, additional information is needed before the Medical Examiner can determine the final cause and manner of death. In these cases, the death certificate will be certified as pending and will be updated at the conclusion of the investigation. Even in cases with pending cause and manner of death, the body will still be ready for release immediately following autopsy. In the rare event that we need to retain custody of the body beyond the date of examination, we will notify you. Upon conclusion of the investigation, an updated death certificate will be available to you either from the Clerk’s Office or via the funeral home. Usually this takes around 60 days from the date of examination.

Sometimes, especially with “pending” death certificates, insurance companies and other agencies require more information in order to proceed with dispensing benefits and closing accounts. Should this be the case, please call our office at 517.364.2561. We will attempt to work with the insurance company or other agency to expedite account disposition prior to finalizing cause and manner of death.

Autopsy reports

The majority of autopsy reports are completed around 60 days from the date of examination, however some may take longer. Autopsy reports are not sent to families upon completion, but you may request a copy of your loved one’s autopsy report by calling 517.364.2561 and selecting the option “to request a copy of a report” or by emailing forensicpath@sparrow.org. If authorized to receive a copy, you will receive it as soon as it is available. Verification of identity may be required.