Investigating the cause of death 

Most deaths in New Zealand are certified by a doctor, as they will have been treating the person for an illness and are satisfied that the death was caused by the illness.

However, if the doctor cannot determine how someone died, or if the death was sudden or suspicious, then it will be report to the Coroner who will investigate the cause of death.

What  is a Coroner?

A Coroner is a qualified lawyer whose job is to investigate sudden, unexplained or suspicious deaths. They will investigate the cause of a death if it has been reported to them by the police or a doctor who examined the body.

More information about Coroners is in the Coronial Services guide, When somebody dies suddenly.

When must a death be reported to the Coroner? 

There are several reasons why a death might be reported to the coroner for investigation. The coroner may become involved if:

  • a death is sudden, and the doctor is unable to determine the cause of death
  • it was an unnatural or violent death (for example, a drowning, a car accident or poisoning)
  • the death was a suicide
  • no Medical Certificate of Cause of Death has been issued, for instance if a doctor was not called when the person died
  • the person died while under anaesthetic or during a medical operation or procedure, or if the death appears to have been caused by the anaesthetic, operation or procedure
  • a woman dies in childbirth
  • the person died in prison or in Police custody
  • the person died in a state institution, such as a psychiatric hospital or children’s home

Once a death has been reported to the coroner, the body cannot be buried or cremated until the coroner is satisfied of the medical cause of death and signs a burial order. In many cases this will happen within 24 hours of the death, unless a post-mortem is required.

What happens after a death is reported to the Coroner?

When a death is reported to the Coroner, they can decide whether or not they need to look into the death. If they decide to look into the death, they can open an 'inquiry'. This is the process in which the Coroner, or another authority (e.g. the Civil Aviation Authority or the Police) investigates a death.

There are some circumstances in which the coroner must order an inquiry, e.g. they think the person committed suicide, or the person was in police custody, prison, CYF home or foster care. An inquiry could be opened soon after the death, or a few weeks later – and how long it takes will vary depending on the situation.

If an inquiry is opened the family will be notified. They’ll be assigned a coronial case manager who can keep them informed about how the inquiry is going and who will be the main point of contact for the family.

In some circumstances, the coroner’s office will order a post-mortem.

What is a post-mortem?

A post-mortem or ‘autopsy’ is a full examination of the body to find out the exact cause of death. It is performed by a pathologist and often involves surgical procedures. The family will be notified if a post-mortem is ordered. 

When the post-mortem has been completed the Coroner will authorise the release of the body to the family. If it was necessary for the pathologist to remove tissue samples for testing, they will ask the family whether these should be returned to the family.

Immediate family can ask for a copy of the report (called the “finding”), however if it’s part of a police investigation the family may not be able to get a copy.

What is an inquest?

An inquest is a formal hearing in Court to establish the circumstances of a person’s death. The Coroner decides whether an inquest is needed, but the family is allowed to ask for one. 

During an inquest, the Coroner asks specialists and witnesses to speak so that the Coroner can determine how the person died. An inquest may happen months after the funeral has taken place, and usually happens when the death has occurred under suspicious or unusual circumstances. It will be possible for the family to have a lawyer represent them at the inquest, and ask witnesses questions.

After the inquest, the Coroner will give a copy of the 'finding' to the family.

More about hearings and inquests is on the Ministry of Justice website. 

I don’t want them to perform an autopsy on a loved one because it’s against my beliefs. Can I stop them?

If you believe that the deceased’s body should be left intact after death, you should tell Coronial Services as soon as possible (within 24 hours). The Coroner will take your decision into account but may still decide to go ahead. In this case, you will have 48 hours to ask the High Court to review the Coroner’s decision.

You can’t object to an autopsy if the person died as the result of a crime.

If the post-mortem goes ahead, you can ask the Coroner for permission to stay near the body while it is in the mortuary, or ask for someone (e.g. a doctor or funeral director) to represent you at the post-mortem. Whether the permission is given is up to the Coroner.

More information about objecting to a post-mortem is on the Ministry of Justice website.