It is not always a simple task to get a death certificate when someone dies. Before it can be issued, the death must be confirmed by someone with legal authority to do so and registered with Births, Deaths and Marriages at the Department of Internal Affairs. The process of getting a death certificate begins immediately upon the person's death.
What typically happens when someone dies of known, natural causes is that the attending doctor confirms the death. The doctor then issues a “Medical Certificate of Cause of Death.” Once you obtain this official confirmation, you or the funeral director will need to have other documents such as a special approval for cremation. Then, after the burial or cremation, you can get a death certificate once the death is registered with Internal Affairs.
If there is any question that the death was accidental or violent, or if the cause is not yet known, the process is more complex. It must be reported to the coroner, who will decide if further investigation is necessary and may order a post-mortem, also known as an autopsy, to determine or confirm the cause of death. Once the cause is confirmed and officially registered, the body can be buried or cremated. After that, the Death Certificate can be issued.
The Doctor's Role
If a doctor was in charge of the person's care before he or she died, the doctor might have enough information to determine the cause of death. In this case, the doctor will issue a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death. This is an essential document because it is required before the body is buried or cremated.
The doctor is only allowed to issue this certificate if he or she is confident that the death was due to natural causes related to the illness being treated. The doctor is usually not allowed to make this determination if the cause seems to be an accident. However, if the person was over 70 at the time of his or her death, the doctor can determine if the death was caused by physical limitations or other problems associated with the person's age.
If the doctor can and is allowed to determine the cause of death, the doctor can issue the certificate. At that point, the family can control what happens to the body, either by taking it home or arranging for it to go to a funeral home.
However, the doctor might report the death to the police instead in certain cases, so the police can notify the coroner. This can happen:
- In cases of suicide, unnatural or violent deaths.
- If the doctor cannot determine the cause of death.
- If the death occurred when the person was under anaesthetic or having an operation or if anaesthetic or an operation might have been the cause of death.
- If the person died during childbirth.
- If the person was in prison, police custody or in some other official custody or care.
If the person died in an accident, the police or hospital staff arrange for the body to go to the hospital morgue. The coroner will either decide that no further investigation is needed and allow the doctor to issue the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death or determine that a post mortem is needed.
The Coroner's Role
The local coroner has a part to play if the death is suspicious, violent or unnatural. In these cases, the doctor who first examines the body reports the death to the police, who report it to the coroner.
A coroner is typically a lawyer rather than a medical professional. His or her job is to determine the cause of death if the doctor could not make that determination. Once the issue of cause of death is in the coroner's hands, he or she becomes legally in charge of the body. After that, the coroner has to make a few decisions about what to do next.
The coroner may talk to friends and relatives in search of information and rumors about what happened to cause the death and events that led up to the death. Based on all this information, the coroner might decide there needs to be a post-mortem or even an inquest. The post-mortem is an examination of the body done by a medical pathologist who specializes in diseases.
If the death was violent or suspicious, the coroner might decide to hand over the decision to the Coroner's Court for a legal hearing called an inquest. The inquest allows the court to examine the evidence surrounding the death and determine its cause.
In deciding whether to order an autopsy, the coroner has to assess whether the post mortem will bring any new information to help determine the cause of death. The coroner also has to consider whether the death was violent or in any way unnatural. The coroner may go ahead with the post mortem if any rumors, suspicions or public concerns suggest that it is necessary. He or she may decide not to move forward with the post mortem if it would offend or severely upset the family due to tikanga Maori or other cultural beliefs. Finally, the coroner may choose to call in a pathologist to conduct a post mortem or not based on whether the immediate family wants an autopsy to be done.
In certain cases, the coroner may order the autopsy to be completed immediately. This can happen if waiting could interfere with the likelihood of finding the cause of death. For infant deaths, the coroner moves forward with the autopsy in any case. The coroner may act immediately if the body needs to be made available to the family quickly due to tikanga Maori or other cultural practices.
As soon as the coroner makes a decision to order the post mortem, he or she is required to notify the immediate family as soon as possible. The coroner also has to tell the family the reason for the autopsy. After the post mortem is completed, the coroner must give the immediate family a copy of the report if they tell him they want it.
The coroner must sign an Order for Disposal of Body within 24 hours of the conclusion of the autopsy. This allows the family to take legal possession of the body and move forward with burial or cremation. In cases where the coroner chooses not to do a post mortem, he or she must release the body within the same timeframe as it would be released if a doctor had signed the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death. However, if additional medical specialists besides the pathologist need to be called in, the process might take longer.
The Pathologist's Role
If the coroner calls in a pathologist to do a post mortem, the pathologist looks for external injuries and does a surgical examination of the body, looking at the internal organs, examining any deep wounds and searching for signs of disease.
As the pathologist examines the body, he or she will be careful to avoid leaving visible signs of the autopsy. In fact, the pathologist is legally required to not do anything that would disfigure the body any more than is necessary to determine the cause of death.
The Family's Role
The family of the deceased may be called upon for information about the deceased's life as well as any information they have about the person's death.
If the family does not want a post mortem to be done, they need to make their objection known to the coroner within 24 hours after the coroner notifies them of his or her intentions. If the coroner still believes the autopsy is necessary, the family must make their objection to the High Court within 48 hours. The High Court is required to address the objection immediately. To file this objection with the High Court, the family needs a lawyer, available through Legal Aid if necessary.
However, in certain instances, the family does not have a right to object to the post mortem. This happens if the coroner decides an immediate autopsy is necessary to find evidence of the cause of death or if the death might have been caused by a criminal act.
In addition, the family may want to be present during the time the coroner has the body. The immediate family or whanau and a minister can be with the body if they so choose and the coroner decides to allow it. This request may be denied if it could make finding the cause of death more difficult, if being with the body could cause health risks to the family, or if there are no rooms or facilities where the family or whanau can stay.
After the body has been released by the coroner, the burial or cremation can take place. Following this, Births, Deaths and Marriages at the Department of Internal Affairs must be notified within three working days. If a funeral director is involved, that person can notify Internal Affairs, but otherwise, it must be done by the executor of the will, or if there is no will, by the closest relative.
This notification must be submitted on the Notification of Death for Registration form (BDM 28). You can get this form from the Births, Deaths and Marriages office or by calling 0800 22 52 52. BDM offices are located in Auckland, Manukau, Wellington and Christchurch. You do not have to pay anything to register the death, but you do have to pay for a copy of the death certificate.
After Births, Deaths and Marriages officially registers the death, they issue a New Zealand Death Certificate. This is an important document for family, because it allows the family to deal with issues involving the estate, such as getting funds released from a bank account. The family can get a copy of the death certificate by applying for it, which can be done at the same time as the Notification of Death for Registration.