California law requires the coroner to determine the circumstances, manner, and cause of sudden deaths where an attending physician is not able to ascertain this information. A coroner also makes an inquiry and does an autopsy in cases of deaths resulting from homicide, suicide, certain accidents, and when deaths are unattended. California law also has a provision that requires the coroner’s involvement in death when the deceased person was not seen by their doctor with 20 days prior to their passing.
Not all deaths are reported to the coroner’s office. Natural deaths that occur in a hospital, medical facility of some other type, or in a hospice usually do not require a coroner’s death investigation.
In most cases, a California coroner makes a cause of death determination within 24 to 48 hours after becoming involved in a case. If additional testing is required, like drug tests, the cause of death may not be established within this timeframe. When that type of situation occurs, the cause of death temporarily is listed as pending. In a case involving a homicide, the remains of the deceased individual are held by the coroner for an additional 24-hour time period after the initial forensic examination is completed.
If death is determined to be a homicide, the coroner has the legal authority to retain tissue, organ samples, and bodily fluids that may be needed as evidence in criminal prosecution. The coroner does not require the permission of the deceased person’s family to take this step to preserve what may be evidence in criminal prosecution.
Once the forensic examination of the body is completed by the coroner, not including any drug screening, a family has 72-hours to make arrangements to have the remains transported. If arrangements are not made in this time period, the coroner’s office can charge for maintaining the remains. Typically, a family contacts a funeral home who makes arrangements with the coroner’s office to transport the remains.
If a family lacks the funds necessary to prepare a loved one for burial or cremation, counties in California has what is called the Indigent Cremation Program. Each counties requirements and procedures are different but in Los Angeles County, The Indigent Cremation Program offers free cremation and burial in a common grave through the mortuary at LA-USC Medical Center, 1200 N. State St., Los Angeles, CA (323) 226-2622. If the family would like to receive the cremated remains, they must pay the cremation charge which is typically between $350 to $470. The family has two years to pay and pick up the cremated remains which give low-income families time to save up the funds. If the cremated remains are not picked up within two years, the family is not charged a fee and the cremated remains are buried in a common grave. Application for this assistance is made at the coroner’s office.