In many ways, death defines us. Questions about death pervade many aspects of our lives. If people have a preference, most would say that the desire to experience some sort of death by natural causes, something that comes to pass while they are asleep. People turn to the idea of passing through a natural death because they do not fully understand what is meant by the term “natural causes of death.” 

Basic Definition of Death by Natural Causes

At its essence, a death by natural cause occurs when there is nothing external involved in causing the death of a person. In other words, death was not caused by one of these means:

  • Accident
  • Homicide
  • Suicide
  • Drug overdose

There can be situations in which a natural condition like heart disease set the stage for death. An individual with heart disease may be forced to undergo surgery to treat that condition. If a person dies during surgery, the death was precipitated by a natural cause (heart disease) but the associated surgery certainly could have been a contributing factor to the patient’s demise. In a situation in which there was no negligence on the part of the surgery team, in the final analysis, the death is apt to be classified as natural and as a progression of heart disease. 

Classifications of Death by Coroners and Medical Examiners

Coroners and medical examiners are charged with the task of determining the cause of death. Cause of death is the physiological reason why someone’s life came to an end. This is contrasted with the manner of death. Manner of death are the circumstances in which a particular death took place.

By way of example, a coroner can determine that a shotgun blast to a person’s heart caused that individual’s death. The manner of death may involve the coroner in ascertaining, together with law enforcement. Thus, the manner of death might be either homicide, suicide, or accident. As will be elucidated more fully in a moment, in no situation would a death arising from a shotgun blast ever be considered natural. 

In addition to a cause of death being natural or unnatural, the manner of death can be placed into one of five different categories (only one of which is natural):

  • Natural
  • Accident
  • Suicide
  • Homicide
  • Undetermined

Types of Natural Causes of Deaths

An effective way of understanding what are and are not natural causes of death is to examine the most common types of death in the United States. Approximately 74 percent of all deaths in the United States are caused by one or another of 10 different causes. These are from first to tenth:

  • Heart disease (natural)
  • Cancer (natural)
  • Unintentional or accidental injuries (unnatural)
  • Chronic lower respiratory disease, including COPD, asthma, emphysema, bronchitis (natural)
  • Stroke (natural)
  • Alzheimer’s disease (natural)
  • Diabetes (natural)
  • Influenza and pneumonia (natural)
  • Kidney disease (natural)
  • Suicide (unnatural)

Unattended Deaths by Natural Causes

One of the most challenging situations when it comes ascertaining the cause of death (as well as the manner of death) is when an individual has died what is known as an unattended death. (Sometimes this type of death is called an undiscovered death.)

An unattended death is one in which a person dies alone and the remains of that individual are not discovered for a period of time. In fact, there are situations in which the remains of a person who dies unattended are not discovered for a number of days, weeks, or even months. 

Because of the progression of human decomposition, ascertaining the cause of death (and the manner of death) can prove challenging. The county coroner or medical examiner will be involved in the process of determining cause of death in such a situation. 

As an aside, in addition to the challenges of ascertaining the cause of death in this type of situation, another potentially overwhelming task is unattended death cleanup. Because of the dangers and challenges associated with this type of endeavor, engaging the services of a professional unattended death cleanup company is always recommended. 

Legal Ramifications of the Determination of Cause of Death

There are legal ramifications associated with the way in which a cause of death is classified. For example, the classification of the cause of death (as well as manner of death) can result in criminal or civil action (or both). For example, if a person dies as a result of homicide, the perpetrator of the act may face criminal prosecution as well as a civil lawsuit brought by surviving family members.

If a person dies as the result of an accident caused by someone else, surviving family members may be able to pursue what is technically known as a wrongful death lawsuit. If an individual dies because of the malpractice or negligence of a healthcare provider, surviving family members may be able to pursue a medical malpractice lawsuit.