Depressing enough?
April 8, 2008 3:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a story in which a character dies, and I need to know what happens after that with respect to police involvement, morgues, funeral homes, the actual funeral, etc.

Background: the character is a woman in her early thirties. She lives in a tiny (like <300 people) town in West Virginia. She lives alone and has no will. Her mother lives in the same town, and neither of them has a lawyer. The mother is on welfare (although what kind, I'm not sure yet).

The character dies of an alcohol overdose in her home, and is not discovered for several days.

So, what I need to know is, what happens after that? Will police be involved, and in what capacity? With no will and no lawyer, how will the death be handled legally? Would the body be taken to a morgue, or directly to a funeral home? The body would be cremated- how is that arranged? There would be a memorial attended by just a few people, and no actual funeral- would that be through a funeral home, or what, and how much would something like that (small memorial plus cremation) cost?

(The story is really about the dead woman's sister, so this stuff is sort of background to the plot.)
posted by showbiz_liz to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The details vary state-by-state. I'd suggest calling around some police departments, coroner's offices, and funeral homes in West Virginia, and trying to find someone who's feeling chatty.

Howdunit: How Crimes Are Committed and Solved, excerpting Cause of Death: a Writer's Guide to Death, Murder and Forensic Medicine, offers this sequence of events after death:

"1. A body is discovered.
2. The body is pronounced dead by the appropriate person, usually a physician, but sometimes by a nurse or a paramedic.
3. The body is sent to the morgue or funeral home, identified by the family or friends and tagged.
4. Either the attending physician determines the cause of death, or the coroner evaluates the death and determines if an autopsy is required to establish the cause of death.
5. If indicated, a medial-legal autopsy is performed.
6. The death certificate is filled out, stating the cause of death after determined by the autopsy.
7. All of the materials obtained (autopsy report, photopgraphs, toxicology test results and opinions) are turned over to the authorities and become a part of the corpus delicti, or "body of evidence."
8. The body is then turned over to the family and becomes the property and responsibility of the next of kin for either cremation or embalming and burial."

And here's some relevant West Virginia law.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 4:11 PM on April 8, 2008

Police would be involved, at least until it was ruled that there was no foul play involved. Depending on how big the town is, it would be taken either to a morgue or funeral home. I've heard some small counties have those facilities under one roof.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 4:13 PM on April 8, 2008

who discovers the body? if a civilian finds her, they would probably call 911, who would send police and a medical examiner. if the police find her, they will just call the medical examiner themselves.

i would imagine that the police would have to be involved to rule out homicide. the body would probably go to the hospital for an autopsy or at least labwork for the investigation. if someone claims the body and pays for a funeral, she'd go to a funeral home. if nobody does, the state will probably bury her at state expense without a funeral, straight from the morgue.

i'm not an expert, this is just my guess.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:14 PM on April 8, 2008

I can tell you that in my area the police would be called and the officer arriving first would then notify his sergeant who would call detectives and then the coronor. The coronor makes the decision as to releasing the body to a funeral home or sending it for an autopsy. The body might go to a morgue for several hours until transport can be arranged to the crime lab. In Georgia the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) crime lab does the autopsy. Autopsys are done quickly but chemical tests might take a while. If nothing unusual is found at the scene and the autopsy doesn't turn up signs of a crime the police have no more involvement.
In your story the coronor might not order an autopsy because of costs involved (small town budget) and because it might be very obvious as to the cause of death backed up by the reputation of the character in your story. (The coronor might know her to be a heavy drinker).
I can't help you with much else beyond this point.
posted by prjo at 4:16 PM on April 8, 2008

In many western countries all unexpected sudden deaths are investigated by the police as a matter of course. Once the body is discovered people will call either the police, their own doctor, an ambulance or maybe the hospital. Once any of those authorities realize what's going on they will also call the police and have them attend.

If they think there might be a chance of saving the person EHS would transport the person to a hospital. If they're very dead the body will be left in place for the police to examine the scene. Generally speaking with anything less than 100% obvious cause of death there will be an autopsy performed by whatever legal authority is supposed to (coroner's office) which will give the results to the police as per cause of death. I think in most places it's up to that authority to rule whether the death is supsicious or not. Of course the police will have made an initial investigation at the time under the assumption that all deaths are suspicious until proven otherwise (better to do the investigaiton and not need it then otherwise).

As part of that initial investigation the police will probably photograph or seize any medications present (possible overdose or interaction issues), any bottles of alcohol or other food near the body would be noted, and samples might be taken. Certainly they'd take photos of where the body was found. The police would also take the names and details of anyone present in the house at the time the person died/was found. EHS or other paramedics would probably also be giving the police a copy of their crew report on scene, which is a tracking document that says when the arrived, what they did, and who 'called' the death.

Officers would then probably try to determine the Who What Where When Why How (as relevant) for all parties involved in events, but particularly the last person to see the deceased alive and the person who found them dead/reported it.

Police would then stay on scene until the body removal services (often offically called just that) arrived and took the body away - where to is up to the coroner. It's not uncommon for people to get mad at the deceased for having died and do hit the body in their greif/anger. The police have the awkward job of staying with the body to prevent such actions as they may confuse autopsy results. Sometimes police can make a verbal report to the coroner over the phone in cases that appear to be natural causes, and the coroner may not attend in person. Assuming that the scene appears to be non-criminal the body would be removed to the local morgue pending the coroner's decision as to whether or not to have an autopsy. Usually the body would only be removed with the clothing, rings and such would be taken off at scene and returned to the family (to ensure no one is accused of stealing anything).

Somewhere in the background the coroner is probably also going to be calling the deceased's family doctor, to determine if the death was expected or appears to be consistant with a cause the doctor was aware of (i.e. no one expects alcohol overdose but the doctor might have known about the alcohol abuse problem).

After the coroner and police have finished their investigation (autopsys are usually done in 1-2 days - they still don't know at that point if it's a murder so speed could be important) the coroner will contact the family and let them know the body can be released. At that point the family can make arrangedments with a funeral home who will pick up the body from the morgue and prepare it for burial/cremation.

Sorry but I have no idea regarding the will and other legal issues.

P.S. Anything you've seen on CSI is made up. You'd only get a medical examiner type person on scene with the body in VERY suspicious cases and your small town probably wouldn't have one of those at all.
posted by tiamat at 4:23 PM on April 8, 2008

You might want to ask Coldchef, he's an undertaker.
posted by doctor_negative at 7:23 AM on April 9, 2008

« Older How to get rid of (not cover) a burnt plastic...   |   Where can I find recommendations for my new server... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.