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A coroner is an elected or appointed public official who determines the cause of death of an individual and completes his or her death certificate. A coroner often investigates violent deaths, including homicides and suicides. A coroner may, or may not be a medical physician. If a coroner is certified, he or she may perform autopsies. [1]

Medical examiners are more common in the U.S. than coroners. A medical examiner is an individual with a medical degree, and is a certified pathologist. Medical examiners are either employed by the government or work independently . A medical examiners duties include determining cause of death, performing autopsies, and appearing in court to describe the evidence he or she has collected. [2]


The term coroner is derived from the Anglo-Norman word, corouner. The word corouner means to ‘keep the pleas of the Crown’. This term was used to identify those who held the office of coroner (originally called crowner). It first became common in 12th century England, which was at the time ruled by the Anglo-Normans. The coroner’s duties were to keep records of local proceedings governed by the crown and to raise money by selling the property of executed criminals. They also investigated all suspicious deaths, which is what coroners are commonly associated with today. Over time the office of coroner has evolved into what it is today. [3]



The education requirements for a coroner differ from state to state. The usual requirements are minimal. A person must have obtained their high school degree in order to become a coroner. It is recommended that the person obtain a criminal justice degree. It is not required to have a medical degree, but without one, the tasks a corner can perform are limited. Many states offer training courses for coroners as well. [4]

Medical Examiner

The process of becoming a medical examiner is much more complex that that of a coroners. Like a coroner, the medical examiner must have earned his or her high school diploma. After graduation, a person should enroll in a four-year undergraduate medical program in a college or university. During this time, it is recommended that the individual earn a degree in law. After completing the four year course the person should complete a years training in anatomic pathology, a medical specialty that deals with the gross, microscopic and molecular study of organs, tissues, and full bodies (cadavers). [5] Next, it is required that the person enrolls in a four-year medical school. After completing medical school, the person must complete a forensic pathology residency in a hospital or in a medical examiner office. He or she must next be certified as a forensic pathologist by the American Board of Independent Medical Examiners. After fulfilling all requirements, the individual is free to obtain a medical examiner position.[6]

Job Description


Coroners are public officials that investigate suspicious deaths within a range of legal authority. Coroners are in charge over the activities of employed physicians, technicians and investigators. Coroners are responsible for directing the formal investigations of deaths, performing autopsies (depending on qualification), conducting toxicology and pathology reports, determining official causes of death. Coroners often work with outside services, such as other physicians, law enforcement agencies, and medical divisions. Coroners often appear in court and give testimonies on their reports. Coroners are also responsible for the disposal of unclaimed bodies and personal belongings. They also are responsible for signing death certificates. [7] A coroners salary varies depending on location and experience. The annual salary of a coroner can range between 40,000 and 200,000 dollars. [8]

Medical Examiner

A medical examiner is a medical doctor and certified pathologist appointed to investigate all violent, suspicious, and unnatural deaths. A medical examiner determines the official cause of death of a person and is required to do so by law. Medical examiners have the complete authority to conduct autopsies and to examine forensic evidence. They also have the authority to conduct any medical examinations deemed necessary. Medical examiners are also responsible for contacting the relatives of the deceased to inform them of their investigation. Medical examiners often appear in court as eyewitnesses and or to give testimonies of their findings. [9] The salary of a medical examiner can range from 59,000 to 109,000 dollars annually. [10]


Forensic Autopsies

Autopsy Tools

A forensic autopsy is the examination of a dead body to determine a cause of death for legal purposes. There are five legally defined manners of death: natural, accidental, homicide, suicide, and undetermined. Forensic autopsies are usually preformed to determine homicides and suicides. [11] There are two parts to a forensic autopsy; the external and internal examinations. During the external examination, photographs are taken and physical evidence is collected off of the body. Any external marks and wounds are examined and then the body is cleaned, weighed, and measured. All physical features (gender, ethnicity, eye and hair color, etc.) are noted, and then the body is prepped for internal examination. [12]

The internal examination begins with a Y-shaped incision across the body’s chest. It begins at each shoulder and extends down towards the pubic bone. The skin, muscle, and tissue are peeled back revealing the ribcage. The ribcage is then removed to reveal the internal organs. Next, various organs and tissues are removed, examined and weighed. Tissue samples are removed at this time to examine microscopically. During the autopsy, the scalp is cut open, and the skull cap is sawed open to reveal the brain, which is then examined.

During this full examination, the medical examiner/ coroner is collecting evidence to determine an official cause of death. After the autopsy is completely finished, the body is restored to a presentable condition so that it can be delivered to a funeral home. [13]

Clinical Autopsies

Clinical autopsies are preformed the same way as forensic autopsies. Both forensic and clinical autopsies and carried out by either a medical examiner, or a coroner. The main difference between the two is the reason they are preformed. As stated earlier, forensic autopsies are preformed to determine cause of death dealing with homicide and suicide, and for legal matters. Clinical autopsies are preformed to determine natural and accidental causes of death, and if the family of the deceased request one. Some reasons clinical autopsies are preformed are:

  • A death occurs during a medical procedure
  • An undiagnosed medical condition appears to have been the cause of death
  • If a natural death needs to be further examined
  • If the death was accidental (drug overdose, vehicle accident, fall, drowning, etc.)
  • Further investigation of a disease
  • Research purposes



Medical examiners and coroners spend much of their time dealing with the law. Both have the responsibility of determining the legal cause of death. Much of the physical evidence they collected must be presented in court. Medical examiners must often appear in court as eyewitnesses and describe their medical findings, as well as explain the cause of death. Both state governed and private medical examiners appear in court to give their testimony. [15]