Q: This is a difficult and worrying situation. My husband passed away a few months ago and some family members encouraged me to have him cremated, but I chose to have him buried. The death certificate attributes his death to heart disease, but having spoken to a number of people about it, we have a growing concern that his death was not natural. Can I request an autopsy now?
SB, Los Angeles
A: California Government Code Section 27520(a) defines who has the legal right to request an autopsy. A written request may be made by the spouse of the deceased. If there is no surviving spouse, then a surviving child or parent, or next of kin if there is no surviving spouse, child or parent.
There will likely be another consideration as well when you go for an autopsy. Since your husband is buried, an exhumation is required. Research shows that a deceased may be exhumed for a number of reasons, including family decisions, police investigations, or DNA testing.
Bottom line, I encourage you to consult a knowledgeable attorney as you move forward. For example, they must apply for an exhumation permit. The consent of the burial ground and next of kin also appears to be required; If the exhumation is in a public cemetery and other remains may be disturbed, the consent of the other people’s surviving relatives is required.
Q: Are there circumstances where California actually requires an autopsy? If so, who is responsible for reporting?
A: California law requires immediate notification of the Coroner’s Office to perform an autopsy and confirm the manner of death when a person dies under certain circumstances. This conforms to Section 27491 of the California Government Code. The following is not exhaustive, but provides a selection of the types of situations that come into focus: someone had a violent death; the death occurred as a result of or in connection with an occupational disease or an occupational hazard; the manner of death was a criminal offense; death is suspected of being sudden infant death syndrome; and the death was caused by known or suspected intoxication. You can find California Code Section 27491 online to read more.
The obligation to report these types of deaths to the coroner applies to medical staff, undertakers and anyone who is “responsible” for the body.
Ron Sokol has been a practicing attorney for over 35 years and has also served many times as a judge, mediator and arbitrator. It is important to remember that this column is a summary of the law and should not be treated or considered as legal advice, much less as a substitute for actual advice from a qualified professional.
Sign up for The Localist, our daily email newsletter with handpicked stories relevant to where you live. Subscribe here.