Death Certificate: An Official County Record

The death certificate is an official document stating the cause of death and the legal time of death. It must be signed by a physician or a coroner and then filed in the county where death occurred or where the body was found. All death certificates are part of the official county records and can be reviewed upon request.

The death certificate must be filed before final disposition of the body. Neither burial nor cremation can proceed until this has been done. If the cause of death was questionable, or the results of tests are not yet in, the physician would then write under Cause of Death, “Pending.” If the cause of death is later established, it is then filled in. Either the cause of death or “pending” must be put on the death certificate to complete it.

When the manner of death is not due to natural causes, a simple statement is required on the death certificate to indicate how the fatal incident occurred: “Deceased shot self,” “Deceased hit tree while driving automobile,” “Deceased shot by other person.”

Results of an autopsy

If an attended death occurs in the hospital, the physician fills out the death certificate, then the hospital files it with the county. If an unattended death occurs, either a physician or a coroner will rule on the cause of death, and then fill out and file the death certificate. Any death that is questionable, sudden, unusual or violent, including accidental death and suicide, must have the death certificate completed by the coroner after the results of the autopsy are known. Or if autopsy results are incomplete, “pending” is inserted until all information is known.

When a paramedic or nursing home official may pronounce someone dead, a death certificate must be completed by either a physician or coroner.

In the event of a fetal death (miscarriage), if the fetus weighs 500 grams (about 1.1 pounds) or less, even if it is alive for a brief period, a death certificate is not required. The fetus is nonviable.

Fetal death certificate

However, a special fetal death certificate is required by most states when the fetus weighs more than 500 grams. Fetal death must be registered by a death certificate when the fetus weighs more than 500 grams and is born dead.

If the fetus weighs more than 500 grams and is born alive, even if only momentarily, then a regular death certificate is filed. However, an autopsy is not mandated by law.

If a miscarriage occurs unattended and outside the hospital, a physician should be called since unattended fetal death could require a coroner’s investigation.

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