Confirming and registering the death

When someone dies, the death and the cause of death has to be confirmed by a doctor or the coroner before the body can be buried or cremated.

In most cases it will be confirmed by a doctor, who’ll issue a “Medical Certificate of Cause of Death”. But if the death was accidental or involved violence in some way, or if the cause of death isn’t known, the death has to be reported to the local coroner; they’ll investigate if necessary, including by ordering a post-mortem (autopsy) if necessary, and confirm the cause of death.

As well as having this official confirmation from a doctor or coroner, there are other documents the funeral director or relatives will need to complete or obtain from others – for example, special approval forms if the body is to be cremated.

After the deceased’s body has been buried or cremated, the death must be officially registered with Births, Deaths and Marriages at the Department of Internal Affairs, who’ll then issue an official “Death Certificate”.

This section of the chapter explains these processes and the different documents that are needed.

Confirmation by a doctor of the cause of death

When can a doctor issue a certificate of cause of death?

If a person has died after an illness or some other natural cause, usually the doctor who has been caring for them will issue a “Medical Certificate of Cause of Death”. The body can’t be buried or cremated without this certificate. (This isn’t a “Death Certificate” – that’s the certificate issued by Births, Deaths and Marriages after you’ve officially registered the death with them.)

If the deceased had been ill, the doctor can’t issue the cause of death certificate unless they’re satisfied the death was a natural consequence of the illness.

Usually doctors can’t issue a cause of death certificate for an accidental death and instead have to report it to the coroner. But there’s an exception when a person over 70 dies after an accident; in these cases a doctor can issue a certificate so long as the accident resulted from physical problems linked to the person’s age, and the death wasn’t suspicious or unusual and wasn’t caused by someone else.

Once the doctor has issued their certificate, the deceased’s body can be released to the family, so that they can prepare for the funeral. The family can move the body home if they want to, or to a funeral home.

Coroners’ investigations and post-mortems

When do deaths have to be reported to the coroner?

In some cases, the doctor who first sees the body will have to report it to the police, who then in turn have to report it to the local coroner. In general this has to be done if there’s something violent, unnatural or suspicious about the death (see below for more details). The body then can’t be buried or cremated until the coroner has authorised it (by issuing an “Order for Disposal of Body”).

The coroners’ role is to establish when, where, how and why the death happened, and also to work out whether anything can be done differently that might stop similar deaths in the future. Coroners are usually lawyers, not doctors.

Here is a list of the main types of deaths that have to be reported to the coroner:

  • if the death was suicide, or was unnatural or violent (for example, if the person drowned, was poisoned, or died in a car crash)
  • if the cause of death isn’t known
  • if a doctor hasn’t issued a cause of death certificate – for example, if the person had been ill but their doctor isn’t satisfied the illness caused the death
  • if the person died while under anaesthetic or during an operation, or it seems the anaesthetic or operation caused the death
  • if someone dies in childbirth
  • if the person died in prison or police custody
  • if they died in some other official custody or care – for example, in a psychiatric institution or a Child, Youth and Family residence.

In these cases the attending doctor or other officials like the police will report the death to the coroner. If there’s been an accident – a car crash for example – the body will be taken to a hospital morgue; this would be arranged by the police at the scene or, if the person died after they got to hospital, by the hospital staff.

The coroner won’t issue an order for the disposal of the body until satisfied of the cause of death. The coroner may decide it’s not necessary to investigate further (in which case a doctor can issue a cause of death certificate and the body can be buried or cremated).

What happens when the coroner investigates?

Coroners Act 2006, s 19

If the coroner decides to investigate the death, they’ll take legal possession of the body.

They may decide to get a pathologist (a medical specialist in diseases) to do a post-mortem examination of the body – also called an “autopsy” – to find out the cause of death.

In a few cases the coroner may also decide that an inquest is needed – this is a legal hearing in the Coroner’s Court into the death and its cause.

Can family stay with the body while the body is with the coroner?

Coroners Act 2006, ss 25, 26

The coroner can allow the immediate family or whānau (and also a minister) to see, touch and stay with the deceased’s body while it’s with the coroner. In deciding whether to allow this, the coroner will take into account factors such as:

  • whether this could make it harder to find out the cause of death
  • any health risks to the family
  • whether there are rooms and facilities available for the family or whānau.

What is a post-mortem and why might one happen?

Human Tissue Act 2008, ss 49(1), 54

A post-mortem is a surgical examination of the deceased’s body, ordered by the coroner, to find out the cause of death. Sometimes also called an “autopsy”, it’s carried out by a pathologist – a medical specialist in diseases.

The pathologist will examine the internal organs, as well as any external injuries. They’ll try as much as possible not to leave any visible signs of the post-mortem. They have a legal duty to avoid disfiguring the body unnecessarily.

Coroners Act 2006, s 32

These are the factors the coroner has to consider when deciding whether to order a post-mortem:

  • whether it will reveal useful information about the death
  • whether the death appears to have been unnatural or violent, and, if it does, whether the death appears to have been caused by someone else
  • any claims, rumours, suspicions or public concern about the death
  • whether a post-mortem could cause distress or offence to the family because of tikanga Māori or other cultural attitudes or beliefs
  • whether the immediate family has asked for a post-mortem.

    Coroners Act 2006, s 37

The coroner can order a post-mortem to be done immediately if there’s a good reason. This could be, for example:

  • because delaying it would make it harder to find out the cause of death
  • because the deceased person is an infant
  • out of recognition of tikanga Māori or other cultural practices or beliefs that customarily require bodies to be made available to the family as soon as possible after death.

    Coroners Act 2006, ss 23, 24, 27

When coroners order a post-mortem, they have to notify the immediate family as soon as practicable, including telling them why the post-mortem is being done. They also have to tell the family about their right to object (see below).

After the post-mortem, the coroner has to give the family a copy of the pathologist’s report, if the family asks for it.

Can the family prevent a post-mortem being done?

Coroners Act 2006, ss 33-35

They may be able to in some cases, by lodging an objection with the coroner and then, if necessary, going to the High Court.

Any member of the immediate family has a right to object to a post-mortem, except if:

  • the coroner has decided an immediate post-mortem is needed because a delay would make it harder to find out the cause of death, or
  • it seems the death was caused by a criminal act.

Family members have 24 hours to object after the coroner notifies them of the post-mortem order. If they object but the coroner still wants to go ahead with the post-mortem, the coroner has to notify the family of this intention. The family then has 48 hours to take their objection to the High Court.

The High Court has to deal with the objection urgently. You’ll need a lawyer to file an objection in the High Court. Legal aid is available for this (see the chapter, “Legal aid”).

When will the coroner release the body?

The coroner will usually authorise the release of the body (by signing an Order for Disposal of Body) within 24 hours after any post-mortem. The body can then be released to the family to be buried or cremated.

If the coroner has decided a post-mortem isn’t needed, the body should be released with no more delay than would normally occur if a doctor signed a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death. But there may be delays if specialists (other than the pathologist) need to be called in.

Registering the death and getting a death certificate

Notifying Births, Death and Marriages so that the death can be registered

Births, Death, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Act 1995, ss 42, 47, 48

After the deceased’s body has been buried or cremated, Births, Deaths and Marriages at the Department of Internal Affairs must be notified. This has to be done within three working days.

If a funeral director is in charge of the burial or cremation, they’ll take care of notifying Births, Deaths and Marriages. If you’re not using a funeral director, this will be the responsibility of the person in charge of the body, which will be the executor under the deceased’s will or, if there’s no will, the closest relative (see in this chapter “Burial and cremation / Decisions about the deceased’s body”).

You’ll need to fill out the special form for this, called a “Notification of Death for Registration” form (BDM 28). To get a copy of this form, phone 0800 22 52 52, or go into a BDM office. They have offices in Auckland, Manukau, Wellington and Christchurch. It doesn’t cost anything to register a death, but there is a charge if you want a copy of the death certificate (see below).

Getting a copy of the Death Certificate

When Births, Deaths and Marriages has officially registered the death they’ll issue a Death Certificate (officially this is called a “New Zealand Death Certificate”).

Having a copy of the Death Certificate can be important, for example, for getting funds released from the deceased’s bank when it’s only a small estate (see in this chapter “Dealing with the deceased’s property / Small estates: No need for court approval”).

To get a copy of the certificate you’ll need to apply for it, and pay the relevant fee. You can apply when you fill out the notification form (see above).

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