Coroner  What They Do

Just the Facts

Coroners Career Video

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dotCoroners and medical examiners are detectives of death. When a person dies unexpectedly or suddenly, coroners and medical examiners begin an independent, fact-finding investigation to determine the cause of death.

A coroner is usually a person acting in a non-medical capacity who examines the findings of the medical team's examination of the deceased, as well as any evidence from police and witnesses.

In the U.S., coroners are usually elected public officials. There is no specific educational requirement: every county has a coroner and they come from varied backgrounds such as farmers, business owners or police officers.

A medical examiner (sometimes also referred to as a coroner) is a physician qualified to deal with diagnosis and forensics. They are expected to use their medical experience to evaluate the medical history and physically examine the deceased. In the U.S., medical examiners are usually appointed to their positions.

Systems differ depending on the state. Some places have a coroner service and others use medical examiners. The reason that different qualifications are acceptable is that different places, depending on their size, will have various levels of need for such services.

There are not enough resources in smaller places to support a medical examiner. Also, fewer sudden deaths occur in places with small populations. There would not be enough work for a full-time medical examiner. Rural coroners may work part-time or on a fee-for-service basis.

dotAn important part of a coroner's job is to take care of the office. Coroners must do paperwork including the death certificate which lists a cause of death. This can be due to natural circumstances, accident, homicide, suicide or unknown causes.

If an autopsy is required, coroners' offices will contract this work out to trained specialists in forensic pathology.

Coroners notify the family of the deceased. It is a difficult part of the job, but coroners are able to help the family grieve by providing answers. Coroners also write reports and make recommendations to prevent similar deaths.

Coroners work with many other agencies during their investigations. For example, they may work with the police or fire officials. They partner with workplace safety agencies to investigate on-the-job accidental deaths. Deaths resulting from a plane or rail crash would require teamwork with the National Transportation Safety Board.

Coroners do a lot of work in the office and work regular hours most days.

"The paperwork never seems to end. Given my oversight and administrative responsibilities, I spend a lot of time behind my desk," says Dr. Bonita Porter. She is a regional chief coroner.

Wherever possible, coroners may be required to attend death scenes to view the body as it was discovered. They could be called out at any hour.

"This includes rural settings, waterways, roadways, fire scenes, construction and mining sites as well as indoor settings," says Porter. She adds that coroners are never put in harm's way. If a death scene is dangerous, the body is moved to a safe location.

A person who is severely visually impaired would not be suitable for this job. A coroner or medical examiner may need to view the body of the deceased.

"This is the first step in a coroner's death investigation, and without adequate eyesight a person would not be able to see the place, position [and] condition of the body, or the surrounding area of where it was found. This is necessary in order to assess the next steps in the investigation," says Porter.

Just the Facts

Want a quick overview of what this career is about?Check out Just the Facts for simple lists of characteristics.

At a Glance

Gather evidence about mysterious deaths

  • Salaries are higher for medical examiners
  • The job can be very different from place to place
  • A background in investigation or law enforcement would be good