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What are responsibilities of the county coroner?

Following a 911 call, if Emergency Medical Services determines that a death has occurred, they then notify central dispatch to notify the coroner of the death.

Once notified, the coroner or a deputy coroner immediately responds to the scene.

Since, in most cases, the body of the deceased cannot be moved or repositioned until the coroner arrives, it is imperative that he arrive at the scene as hastily as is practical. This is especially true in the event or possibility of a suspicious death, or homicide or suicide.

Upon arrival, the first act of the coroner is to determine and pronounce the time of death.

As a Medicolegal Death Investigator, he will begin a methodical investigation to determine the identity, manner and cause of death.

He will then survey the deceased for a number of clues, including changes in the body which include: livormortis (pooling of blood in the body), rigormortis (stages of stiffening of the body muscles) and algormortis (core temperature of the body).

In addition, the body will be examined for evidence of trauma, proof that the body has been moved or repositioned after death, and other artifacts that may be informative to the investigation.

Following the examination, and ample photographs being taken, the scene is thoroughly examined for evidence as well.  If specific evidence is found, it is collected by the coroner or law enforcement personnel and held as evidence.

This investigation is done as an investigative team, which includes law enforcement, the coroner and emergency medical personnel.

Witnesses, family members, and friends are often interviewed by the team and the information is shared as needed.  Once identification is determined, the next-of-kin is notified if they are not already present.

With the completion of the on-site investigation the coroner must determine if an autopsy will be performed.

At this point, the coroner will often contact the State Medical Examiner to discuss the case regarding an autopsy.  If he elects to have an autopsy he will fill out the appropriate forms and transport the decedent to the State Medical Examiners laboratory in Frankfort, one of four such offices in the state.

It is not necessary for the family of the deceased to give permission for an autopsy if the coroner determines that it is needed.

During an autopsy, especially in the event of violent or traumatic death, the coroner will often attend the procedure to gain as much first-hand knowledge about the case as possible.  He is also able to provide additional information to the medical examiner about the case.

Often, an autopsy is not indicated, but a test involving bodily fluids may be ordered, which provide information about drugs and alcohol presence in the body, which may be determined to be the cause of death.

In this case, the coroner will obtain the fluid specimens from the decedent at the hospital or the coroner’s office.  They are then shipped off to an independent laboratory for analysis which usually takes three-to-four weeks.

After all required testing is performed, the body is then turned over to the requested funeral home to prepare for disposition of burial or cremation.   

After all tests results come back to the coroner he then completes a preliminary death certificate initiated by the funeral home and forwards it electronically to the Office of Vital Statistics in Frankfort.

Shortly thereafter, the funeral home will receive the certified death certificate and will forward it to the family of the decedent.

I try always to be available to every family to discuss the results of the tests and to explain the terminology and help them understand what actually caused the death of their loved one.

Michael Hughes is the Jessamine County Coroner. His motto is “dignity for the deceased, compassion for the bereaved.” He can be reached at (859)885-5634 or michaelhughes@jessaminecountycoroner.com.