The Office of the Medical Examiner investigates deaths that are of concern to the public health, safety, and welfare of the community. Deaths reported to our office are investigated and in many cases the investigation includes a postmortem examination. The postmortem examination is usually a complete autopsy; however in some cases the examination may be limited to the external surfaces. The extent of the examination is determined by the Medical Examiner according to standards established by the National Association of Medical Examiners. All examinations are conducted by board-certified forensic pathologists who have completed advanced training in their area of expertise.
An autopsy is ordered by the Medical Examiner to determine the cause and/or manner of death, to answer additional questions about the death and often to collect evidence. The exams may of value to identify inherited or familial diseases that may lead to early diagnosis and treatment of other family members. The procedures often provide crucial evidence to criminal justice agencies. Information regarding a death is often important for insurance claims, work-related compensation, or other death benefits. The Medical Examiner’s Office must accurately identify decedents under their jurisdiction.
Each decedent is treated with dignity and respect, and families are supported with compassion, courtesy, and honest information to help them with their grief and to make appropriate arrangements. When a postmortem exam is ordered by the medical examiner there is no charge to the family, it is paid for by the county in which the death occurred.
In most cases the autopsy is performed on the day of or the day following death. Generally the cause and manner of death can be determined shortly after the procedure. However, there are cases in which additional testing is required and the cause and manner of death may remain pending until a final determination is made. The final report may take two months to prepare due to detailed studies performed. In rare cases, the report may take more than two months.
What law gives authority to a Medical Examiner to order a postmortem examination?
The Michigan Medical Examiner Statutes, ACT 181, P.A. 1953, as amended and the Michigan Public Health Code, Act 368, P.A. 1978, as amended; mandate that certain types of death be referred to the medical examiner for investigation. Deaths that come under the jurisdiction of the Medical Examiner’s Office include, but are not limited to, sudden and unexpected deaths, accidental deaths, and violent deaths. The medical examiner has the authority under these Acts to order an autopsy at any time it is deemed necessary to determine or confirm the cause and manner of death, or comply with other statutory requirements.
Release of Remains
The next-of-kin will need to authorize a funeral home to obtain the body after the Medical Examiner's Office completes their examination. Family members should select and promptly contact a funeral home.
A copy of the report can be requested by sending an email to pathology @med.wmich.edu, by calling the Office of the Medical Examiner at 269.337.6173 or by completing the Request for Autopsy Report and faxing it to the office at 269.224.0262. It is important to note, reports are not sent automatically to the family but must be requested. Please allow 60-90 days for completion and distribution of reports. You may want to review the results with a physician, if you do not have a physician, the medical examiner will review it with you.
The complete record regarding the death of your loved one is maintained by the Office of the Medical Examiner. Information in the record includes the investigative report, toxicology and postmortem examination reports. The report describes the findings of the forensic pathologist including disease processes and any injuries found.
A life insurance company may accept a death certificate as proof of death, however, when a postmortem examination is conducted by the medical examiner, the insurance company may request a copy of the report. You may refer the insurance company to our office if that is the case. Most insurance companies are aware the autopsy report may take up to three months to complete.
Important Notice Regarding Retention of Organs
Certain instances may call for the medical examiner to retain one or more organs so that special tests or examinations may be conducted to determine the cause, manner, and circumstances of death. Sometimes, the organ (such as brain, heart, eyes, or others) may need to be kept even though the deceased body has been released to a funeral home. When this occurs, the funeral and burial or cremation may take place before the examination of the retained organ is complete. In such cases, the organ will be retained for a minimum of 90 days. If no request is made by the family to obtain the organ, disposition will then be made. Disposition will be facilitated by appropriate and acceptable medical standards. When an organ is retained by the medical examiner, it is office policy to indicate in the autopsy report that the organ has been retained. It is the responsibility of the legal next-of-kin to contact the medical examiner if return of the organ is desired. In such cases, the return can be coordinated with the designated funeral director. Organs are retained only when necessary to facilitate proper examination. Normally, no whole organs are retained.