How Autopsies Work

Medical Examiner or Coroner?

While many types of medical doctors are capable of performing autopsies, most states or local government laws mandate that an appointed forensic pathologist do the work. These appointees are called medical examiners and have an official position in the county medical examiner system [source: Johns Hopkins].

Not all counties use the medical examiner system. Some counties use coroners and a coroner's system. There are two major differences between medical examiners and coroners and their corresponding systems.


"A medical examiner by definition is a physician," Kiesel explains. "... In most cases, they are trained to be forensic pathologists ... and are appointed to their positions. To be a coroner, you just have to be able to be elected to the job. You've got places where the local feed store operator is a coroner. I've got a friend out in Washington State who's a farmer, who's the coroner of his county."

Many coroners are qualified pathologists with years of experience. Some are physicians in unrelated fields. But depending on the county laws, a coroner may require no medical qualifications at all in order to perform his or her duty. Rural counties might opt for having a coroner instead of a medical examiner because they don't have a lot of qualified forensic pathologists or the facilities for them to do their jobs properly. And a sparsely-populated jurisdiction that doesn't have much violent crime and sees few unexplainable deaths may simply decide that it doesn't need a full-time forensic pathologist.

The coroner is also responsible for identifying the body, notifying next of kin, collecting and returning the deceased's personal belongings to the family, and signing the death certificate.

In the event that a non-medical coroner needs an autopsy performed, he or she can have it sent to a medical examiner. In some states, the government will provide the coroner with a medical examiner for the autopsy.

In the next sections, we will detail the process of examining a dead body inside and out.