WHAT IS A TENNESSEE CORONER?
The County Coroner in Tennessee is typically a layperson with most of his training coming from on-the-job experience under the direct supervision of the Medical Examiner and pathologists. Coroners are most often located in the rural counties where tax dollars are not readily available, especially to be spent dealing with the dead.
The Coroner completes the following tasks on each “Call:”
- Confirms that a human death has occurred;
- Determines if the death appears to be by natural causes or if there is a possibility foul play caused the death;
- Determines the deceased’s identity;
- Determines and notifies the next of kin;
- Arranges for specific testing and examination, including an autopsy, or discharges the body to the Funeral Home selected by the Next of Kin;
- Assists the family
- Prepares case histories, reports and maintains records. Each Call consumes from one to twenty-five or more hours.
- I also make myself available in case family or friends need someone outside their circle of family and friends to talk to. I talk (and mostly listen) to a lot of survivors. A lot of people call me around 2:00 A.M., that seems to be the time people want to talk. I don’t mind, hopefully I am a good listener!
Page one of the Medico-Legal Handbook, also known as “The Coroner’s Handbook,” published in 1971 by theTennesseeDepartment of PublicHealth, states, “TheCoroner is one of the oldest offices in our common-law system. Originally this office was developed in England and the office holders were men of great wealth and prestige. They were appointed by the king to protect the rights and property owed to the crown upon the death of any person.”
Today, under the Coroner system, the office holder is charged with the responsibility of having some practical knowledge of law, medicine, sociology, psychology, chemistry and criminology.
Whenever there is a suspicious death, the Medical Examiner determines the specific cause of death. Law Enforcement attempts to determine how and where the death occurred and, sometimes, who caused it.
The Coroner is there to assist and attempt to insure that all deaths are thoroughly investigated. He is a third and independent set of eyes, ears and, if necessary, a voice for the dead.
By nature, a Coroner must be curious, cautious, conscientious, compassionate, and, above all, unpretentious with himselfin everything he sees and does. Unequivocally, the most unpleasant responsibility the Coroner has to carry out is delivering the news to the next of kin that a father, mother, husband, wife, brother, sister or, God forbid, a child’s life has ended. This task is more horrendous than anything the Coroner ever sees.
The Coroner’s role also is that of service to the community by helping the families of terminally ill and elderly patients who choose to die at home. The Coroner, with the cooperation of the Medical Examiner, goes to the home after receiving notification that the death has occurred, completes his duties and authorizes the body to be released directly to a funeral home which the family chooses, without the family bearing the expenses of ambulance rides and hospital emergency rooms. When anyone dies outside a hospital, in less than twenty-four hours of admission to a hospital or Page 3 of 4 where foul play is known or suspected, the Coroner must take charge of the scene and the body or bodies.
The Coroner must have open communication lines with the Medical Examiner, Law Enforcement, Attorney General, pathologist(s), hospital personnel, witnesses, the deceased’s family, friends and enemies, funeral home personnel and anyone else who might be able to provide information concerning a death. Throw in being prepared to respond to Coroner calls twenty-four hours a day,seven days a week and the fact that the Coroner’s job, in most rural counties, is a part-time position.
This is a hasty explanation, but I hope you get the idea and the understanding that if the Coroner is to be effective, he must possess the capability to think on his feet, question everything he sees and hears, have compassion for his fellow man, be able to communicate with people, and derive conclusions from all he discovers.