What Does New Jersey’s Medical Examiner
In New Jersey, when a person’s death is
unexpected and the cause of death is not immediately
known, the death is investigated by a Medical
Examiner. The Medical Examiner also investigates
deaths that are the result of violence or injury
and deaths that occur in legal custody.
2. What do I do when a family member dies?
Call your local
The police and emergency personnel will respond.
If there is a medical history for chronic disease
and there is nothing to suggest any other cause
of death, the doctor who was treating the deceased
will be contacted. The treating doctor is obliged
to pronounce death and to issue an appropriate
death certificate. The family can have the body
moved to the funeral home of their choice. If
a Medical Examiner investigation is warranted,
then the body will be taken by the Medical Examiner.
Upon conclusion of the Medical Examiner’s
investigation, the body may be released to the
funeral home of the family’s choice. The
family must arrange for the funeral home to
contact the appropriate Medical Examiner Office.
3. What happens during an investigation?
The Medical Investigator gathers information
The investigator works with police in analyzing
the death scene and also obtains pertinent medical
records. The facts may allow the medical investigator
to close the case and refer it to the family
physician to sign the death certificate. The
require that the body be moved to allow a more
detailed examination. This may involve an external
examination (viewing) or may involve a complete
Why are investigations necessary?
Whenever a death occurs under circumstances
that raise a public interest, it needs to be
explained and its cause and manner determined.
Autopsies are performed for:
and other safety violations
deaths are identified and investigated, leading
to proper classification for accidental death
benefits. In criminal cases, the investigation
provides for proper evidence identification
collection, leading to successful apprehension
and criminal prosecution.
5. What is an autopsy?
An autopsy is an external and internal examination
of a body. Licensed physicians, specifically
forensic pathologists, acting as medical examiners,
will perform forensic autopsies to determine
cause and manner of death. After examination,
the body is closed. Specimens of body fluids
and tissues are retained for diagnostic testing
however and, where necessary, an organ, such
as the brain or heart, may also be retained
for further tests.
None of these tests will prevent the body from
being released to the family for funeral arrangements
and the autopsy will not interfere with funeral
viewing. If organs were held for further testing
and should you desire the return of organs after
testing, you should advise the office that performed
the autopsy of this request. Otherwise, within
a reasonable period, the specimens and/or organs
will be handled consistent with standard practice.
6. How long does an autopsy take?
A standard forensic autopsy will take about
two to three hours.
7. Will an autopsy delay our funeral arrangements?
Complicated cases may take longer than 2-3 hours,
but in most cases, should not delay usual funeral
arrangements. After the autopsy, the body is
released to the funeral home. The funeral home
prepares the body for viewing.
8. Will an autopsy interfere with our desire
for a viewing or an open casket funeral?
No. An autopsy does not necessarily preclude
a viewing. The funeral home can prepare the
body for viewing. The surgical incisions which
are closed are appropriately covered. However,
it may not be possible to restore any post-mortem
occur naturally when a person is not found until
hours or days after death. Any severe prior
injuries may make the body un-viewable and may
require a closed casket funeral.
9. Is an autopsy always necessary?
No. However, in some circumstances, an autopsy
is mandated by law. In other circumstances,
the medical examiner may determine an autopsy
is necessary to identify the cause and manner
The law requires an autopsy in deaths:
Involving a homicide
under unusual circumstances
a threat to public health
inmates in prison
children die unexpectedly
autopsy enables a Medical Examiner to obtain
important evidence about the cause and manner
of the person’s death that could not be
10. What if the family does not want an autopsy?
The Medical Examiner autopsy, unlike a hospital
autopsy, does not require permission from the
next of kin. It is done under statutory authority.
If the family has a religious objection to the
Medical Examiner will make every effort to limit
the procedure as far as possible. If the Medical
Examiner does determine that a full autopsy
is necessary to fulfill public responsibility,
the family may present their objection to a
court of law for consideration before
the autopsy is undertaken.
11. Does the family pay for any of the medical
No. Families pay nothing for any of the Medical
Examiner services. The family only pays the
funeral home the cost of its services, including
transportation of the body from the Medical
Examiner’s Office to the funeral home.
12. Must I do anything differently if a baby
No. You will be provided with additional services
following this tragic event. The major cause
of death in babies from one month to one year
of age is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
There is no known cause of SIDS. A diagnosis
of SIDS is made when the
sudden death of an infant remains unexplained
even after a thorough investigation is undertaken.
The investigation includes an autopsy, an examination
of the death scene, and a review of the medical
history. Once the Medical Examiner has made
a preliminary finding of SIDS as the cause of
death, state law requires that the SIDS Center
of NJ be notified of the death. The center provides
counseling and bereavement services to the family
which has suffered this tragic loss. You may
contact the SIDS Center of NJ at their Hotline
13. Can a medical examiner case be an organ
or tissue donor?
The Medical Examiner’s office works closely
with organ procurement agencies. If the family
wishes to donate organs or tissue, they need
to give permission which can be done by calling
The Medical Examiner will consider the family’s
desire, the needs of the procurement agency,
and the need to preserve vital evidence in criminal
14. Where can I obtain a medical examiner report
& death certificate?
When a case is investigated by the Medical Examiner,
an autopsy report and Report of Investigation
by the Medical Examiner may be created. If permitted
by law in the individual case, these documents
can be obtained by writing to the County Medical
Examiner Office in the county where the person
was pronounced dead. A small fee for copies
may be charged. Reports generally take from
eight to twelve weeks to be finalized but may
take longer depending on the circumstances and
the need for specialized testing. Death Certificates
are issued by the local Municipal or County
Registrar or the State Registrar of the Health
Department. The Medical Examiner is not able
to provide death certificates.
15. Where can I find additional resources and
organizations that may provide information,
counseling and other services to my family and
friends who have suffered the loss of a loved
see our resources