What is a Coroner?

A coroner is a public official, appointed or elected, in a particular geographic jurisdiction, whose official duty is to make inquiry into deaths in certain categories. The office of coroner or "crowner" dates back to medieval days when the crowner was responsible for looking into deaths to be sure death duties were paid to the King.

The coroner's primary duty in contemporary times is to make inquiry into the death and complete the certificate of death. The coroner assigns a cause and manner of death and lists them on the certificate of death. The cause of death refers to the disease, injury or poison that caused the death. The coroner also decides if a death occurred under natural circumstances or was due to accident, homicide, suicide or undetermined means or circumstances. Coroners are called upon to decide if a death was due to foul play.

Depending upon the jurisdiction and the law defining the coroner's duties, the coroner may or may not be trained in the medical sciences. The coroner may employ physicians, pathologists, or forensic pathologists to perform autopsies when there appears to be a question of cause or manner of death that autopsy can elucidate.

In some jurisdictions, the coroner is a physician, but in many localities, the coroner is not required to be a physician nor be trained in medicine. In the absence of medical expertise, the non-physician coroner may have difficulty in sorting out subtle non-violent and violent causes of death. Ten states use coroners as their only official death investigation professional.