When The Coroner Calls

A Coroner is a government official who is empowered to conduct or order an inquest into the manner or cause of death and to investigate or confirm the identity of an unknown person who has been found dead within the coroner’s jurisdiction. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coroner

Transfer is a funeral industry term to describe the process of moving a deceased person from one location to the next, typically from place of death to the funeral home.

“I would have been in my early to mid-teenage years when I did my first coroners transfer, it was during industry work strikes in the 1970s and I did them on my way to school. Memories of some transfers stay with you for life. One of my first, involved a small van with a gas bottle on the roof, slamming into a pole on a major road early one morning. The bottle exploded and the vehicle engulfed in flames. It’s not hard to imagine why these scenes are easily recalled many years later.”

With over 6500 (Coroner Court of Victoria, Annual Report 2017-2018) coronial investigations each year what determines when the coroner is involved and why?

The coroner deals with reportable death. There are the obvious types, Violent, unnatural or unexpected deaths, these include homicide, suicide and drug, alcohol and poison-related deaths.  Accident or injury-related deaths such as road fatalities, public transport fatalities, accidental falls, workplace deaths, electrocution, drowning and animal attacks. Where a person,s identity is unknown. The cause of death is not known (the medical practitioner cannot form an opinion about the probable cause of death). Healthcare-related deaths, when someone dies unexpectantly during or after a medical procedure. Deaths of a person who was in custody or care, an inpatient in a mental facility, under care or control of Victorian Police.

Warehouse workers after an accident in a warehouse.
An accident in a warehouse.
Fatal motorcycle accident
Automotive Fatalities

The death must be connected to Victoria, the body in Victoria, the death occurred in Victoria, The cause of death occurred in Victoria the person ordinarily resided in Victoria.

Given the large parameters under which death is reportable, it is not hard to see why there are so many cases handled by the Coroner. But why do the coroners investigate matters that to many people would appear to be straight forward and the deaths obvious?

The coroners court has three roles:

  1. Independently investigate deaths and fires
  2. Reduce preventable deaths
  3. Promote public health and safety and the administration of justice

Families first contact is often with a police officer who will inform the next of kin of the death. They will often seek additional information from the family which will be passed onto the coroner. The body is transferred to the Coronial Service Building in Southbank, Melbourne. All Victorian Coronial cases are transferred to this central location.

Whilst at the Coroners a number of things occur.

  • Identification, confirming the identity of the deceased, may involve visual, medical or scientific processes, including fingerprinting, dental records or blood or DNA.
  • Forensic Processes, the preliminary process may include, visual examination, collection of personal health information, the taking of bodily fluids, imaging such as CT, Xrays and ultrasound and fingerprints.  Often an autopsy (post mortem) is requested. This is performed by a pathologist using techniques similar to a surgical operation. During this process, the major organs of the body are removed and examined and specimens are taken for analysis. The benefit of an autopsy is that it can provide detailed information about the person’s health and condition to give an understanding of the various factors that may have contributed to their death. Even if the cause of death seems clear, the person may have had a medical condition that was not obvious during their life. A family has the right and can request an objection to an autopsy.
Medical Research
Forensic Scientific Investigations
Blood test tubes in centrifuge. Medical laboratory concept.
Body Fluid Testing

Once all the investigations are complete the coroner will issue an “Order for Release”, this enables the body to be released to a funeral director and the funeral performed. Unlike deaths that are not reportable, the full death certificate can take some time before the cause of death is actually known. Your funeral director will guide you and can order an Interim Death Certificate. These look just like a regular death certificate but does not contain the cause of death. Once the coroners office has provided the cause of death to Births Deaths and Marriages a Full Death Certificate can be issued. This can take several months.

Why do some of these processes take so long? With over 6600 investigations each year, the average time to investigate takes 11.8 months? While many associates the coroners with inquests, out of 6500 investigations only 49 inquests were held over that same period of time.

Typically a families involvement with the coroner will be unexpected, it is not one of those things anyone would expect. Your Funeral Director is the best person to contact. They have regular and consistent contact with the coroners office and will arrange for the release of the deceased into their care. Funeral arrangments can occur before the body is released. The body can be expected to remain in their care anywhere from several days to several weeks.

The sudden death of a partner, child family member or friend can be a difficult and painful experience. Families can be assured that today,  Victorias Coronial Services Centre is one of the world leaders in Forensic medicine. The practices of yesteryear have long gone, replaced with state of the art facilities and highly trained professionals and skilled staff.

For more information, https://www.coronerscourt.vic.gov.au

Robert Nelson is a 5th generation funeral director with more than 3 decades in the funeral industry. He is the owner and managing director of Robert Nelson Funerals.

 

 

When a holiday turn to Tragedy

Interstate  or overseas holiday travel can be such a fun and exciting time. New cultures, new experiences rest and relaxation for some some, exciting adrenalin fuelled activities for others. But what happens when fun turns to tragedy?

Australians are avid overseas travellers, with over 9 million Australian taking overseas trips each year. in  2016/17 1,600 Australians died overseas. These figures are only set to rise.

Emergency
Danger on the street. Blue flasher on the police car at night.

Organising repatriation or funeral services on your own overseas can be complex and expensive when you don’t know what you are doing.  In some countries the law and bureaucracy can also complicate the expediency of handling an untimely death. Despite the deceased having an Australian passport we are bound by the laws of the country we are visiting and this can be a confronting situation when families are distressed in shock and or grieving.

Robert Nelson, of Robert Nelson Funerals said “in one case we handled a few years ago the person died on a remote Island in Greece in the middle of summer. There was no refrigeration and no chance to get the person off the island for days. A large fish tank was seconded from a restaurant and turned into an ice box until the body could be transferred to Athens before coming back to Australia.”

Should death occur overseas the first point of contact is your insurer. They will be able to advise you of your entitlements. You should be mindful that simply having travel insurance does not guarantee your claim will be accepted. Most travel policies have extensive terms and conditions. Illegal or some extreme activities, riding or driving while under the influence may also result in the insurer rejecting the claim.

Once the insurer has accepted the claim, they generally work with assistance companies that provide advise and assist with organising the funeral or repatriation services. These companies in turn work with specialist in house funeral companies to provide on ground services and expertise.

The family will need to make a choice of having a burial or cremation in the country of death or repatriate the body back to Australia.

Body Repatriation is a highly specialised field and is best handled by experienced competent professionals. Many countries do not have the type, style or standard of funeral service or body storage that many might be expected in Australia.

All bodies being repatriated by air back to Australia will need to be fully embalmed. In Australia this is generally performed by members of the Australian or British Institute of Embalmers. Overseas it may be performed by doctors or universities and is not a normal procedure in funeral service in those countries. The quality and standard of preparation can be less than satisfactory.

Preparation by Skilled Professionals
Preparation by Skilled Professionals

The despatching funeral service will organise , collection of the body, all necessary local documentation, a specialised and hermetically sealed coffin, suitable for air transfer. They will liaise with their own government authorities for death and health certificates and other formal documentation that may be required. In addition they will work with the Australian Consul within that country as well as Airlines and Customs brokers.

These processes cannot occur overnight and you would expect some delay before the body can be returned home. This can add to the distress of families back home.

Robert says, “in a case we dealt with in the North of England the Coroner only worked in that town once a week and we had to wait for more than week before the coroner could commence their investigation.”

Loading to the aircraft 1,600 Aussies die overseas each year
Busy day at the airport. 1,600 Aussies die overseas each year

Before arrival home the family will have needed to contract a local funeral service provider, who will arrange for the collection of the coffin from the airport on arrival and clearance from Australian Customs. The local funeral director will then organise local documentation for burial or cremation, this may also take a number days to organise.

So what happens when you are not insured or the insurer will not accept your claim?

You will be left to organise all of this on your own. Be mindful there are specialists in international repatriation in Australia that have strong connections throughout the world. you should use these resources in order to save you time and avoiding over payment.

When death occurs away from home but in Australia thing are a little different. When death occurred interstate most bodies used to be flown home. This entailed using a funeral director at the place of death and another in your home town. It can be quite costly.  Whilst this still happens today, most bodies are road transported by specialist crews and vehicles. This mean they can collect the body from the hospital or coroner and transport directly to the home town funeral director. Generally this is seen as the most expedient and cost effective solution.

There is no doubt when death occurs away from home and often in sudden and unexpected ways it adds to the trauma of the situation. However, behind the scenes their are teams of dedicated, skilled, professionals working around the clock to ensure your loved ones are returned as quickly as possible.

Robert is a fifth generation funeral director and Managing Director of Robert Nelson Funerals in Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of the British Institute of Embalmers and skilled in International and Interstate repatriation service. he has strong connections in this field throughout the world