When someone dies unexpectedly
When someone dies, a doctor must be satisfied about the cause of death before they can certify it and the death can be registered. If the doctor is not satisfied about the cause of death or did not examine the deceased at least 28 days before the death occurred, the death must be reported to the Coroner. The Coroner must also be informed if the deceased died as the result of an accident, or in violent or unexplained circumstances. The role of the Coroner is to investigate sudden and unexplained deaths so that the death can be certified and then registered.
Generally the death is reported to the Gardaí, who inform the Coroner. The Coroner then decides whether a postmortem examination (also called an autopsy) is needed. A postmortem examination is a medical examination of the body carried out by a specially trained doctor called a pathologist and usually takes place in a hospital mortuary.
Identification of the body
If the Coroner decides a postmortem examination is needed, then a family member may be asked to formally identify the body. They are required to go to the mortuary and identify the body to a Garda who is acting on behalf of the Coroner. The Gardaí may require more information about the circumstances surrounding the death.
Identification may sometimes be confirmed by a photograph or other means. In such cases a family member is not required to view the body.
Where a Coroner has ordered a postmortem examination, the permission of the family is not necessary.
Release and registration
The body is normally released to the family immediately after the postmortem examination has been completed. Funeral arrangements should not be made until the body is released or the Coroner has indicated when release will occur. This is important at all times, but particularly on public holiday weekends.
If there is a criminal investigation, it may be necessary to have a second postmortem examination or further investigations. In this case, the release of the body and the funeral arrangements may be delayed.
Registering the death
The death can only be registered by the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths when the Coroner has issued a Coroner’s Certificate to the Registrar. The Coroner will issue this after the postmortem report is received or after an inquest is held. In the meantime the Coroner can issue an Interim Death Certificate, on request, which is acceptable to the Department of Social Protection for bereavement grants and other benefits.
If a death cannot be explained by a postmortem examination, an inquest must be held to establish the facts of the death, such as where and how the death occurred. Where an inquest is to be held, the Coroner is usually able to allow burial or cremation once the postmortem examination of the body has been completed.
For some deaths, inquests are legally required. In other cases, the holding of an inquest is at the discretion of the Coroner and the family can make their views known to the Coroner, if they so wish.
The inquest will not take place until at least 6 weeks after the death. It is a public enquiry, presided over by the Coroner (and in some cases involving a jury) into the cause of the death. Witnesses may be required to attend the inquest to give evidence regarding the circumstances and cause of the death. The family are entitled to attend the inquest, but they are not legally obliged to be there.
When a jury is present at an inquest, it is the jury rather than the Coroner who delivers the verdict. Nobody is found guilty or innocent at an inquest and no criminal or civil liability is determined.