DETERMINING THE CAUSE OF DEATH
Forensic Pathology Services
Why is a body brought to the Medical Examiner’s Office?
The law says that the medical examiner must examine the body of anyone who has died in a way that is:
sudden (when the person otherwise appears to have been healthy)
suspicious, unusual, or unnatural
The medical examiner must try to determine how and why the person has died. The medical examiner also must decide if an autopsy is needed.
What is an autopsy?
An autopsy is a step-by-step examination of the body of someone who has died. A doctor looks to see if the body is diseased or injured. The doctor may also take samples of tissue or fluids for testing. This testing is done after the exam so that the family does not have to wait for the body to be released.
The exam usually takes several hours. Nothing is done that would keep the body from being viewed at a funeral.
What if the family does not want an autopsy?
If the family does not want an autopsy, the legal next of kin (closest relative) should tell the Medical Examiner’s Office. The Medical Examiner’s Office will take the request seriously. However, in many cases an autopsy is required by law and must be done despite what the family may want.
Is there a charge for the autopsy?
If there is an autopsy, can organs or tissues still be donated?
Yes. The Medical Examiner’s Office will work with the organ bank to help make this happen.
Can the family get a copy of the autopsy report?
Under Tennessee law, autopsy reports are public. A copy of the report will be prepared upon written request. Please contact our office for report pricing.
How does the family arrange to have the body released?
The legal next of kin (closest relative) must give the Medical Examiner’s Office the name of the funeral home to which the body will be released. The Medical Examiner’s Office will then tell the funeral home when the body is ready.
When will the Medical Examiner’s Office release the body?
The body is almost always released within 24 hours. Sometimes, though, more time is needed for extra testing or to confirm a person’s identity.
What about personal property?
Often, the property that is on a person when he or she dies comes to the Medical Examiner’s Office with the body.
What if the family has no money to pay—where can the family get copies of the death certificate?
If the person has died in Davidson County, copies of the death certificate can be ordered from:
Division of the Metro Health Department
2500 Charlotte Ave.
Nashville, TN 37203
If the person has died in another county, it will be necessary to contact the health department in that county.
What are the hours of the Medical Examiner’s Office?
The office is open to the public Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except major holidays
An investigator and a Medical Examiner are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to accept reports of death.
In Davidson County, the Metropolitan Government may be able to help. Call (615) 862-6458 for more information. The family may also be able to donate the body for education or research. For more information, contact the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Cases that are within Medical Examiner Jurisdiction include “deaths under suspicious, unnatural, or unusual circumstances” (TCA 38-7-108). This includes deaths caused by any type of violence or trauma, suddenly when in apparent health, deaths of infants and children, deaths related to employment or job injuries, persons in jail or custody, deaths believed to represent a public health threat, or deaths caused by abuse or neglect. This means that if any discrete injury, drug use, or any other external event contributes in any way to death, the case should be reported to the Medical Examiner’s Office. The following list represents the most common types of deaths that will fall under medical examiner jurisdiction:
Any type of homicidal violence (gunshot wounds, stab wounds, blunt
trauma from beating, strangulation, etc.)
Suicidal injuries (gunshot wounds, overdose, etc.)
Blunt trauma from motor vehicle collisions
Overdose from prescription medication or illicit drugs, no matter the
duration of hospitalization
Trauma from falls (including subdural hematomas and hip fractures)
Sudden death in persons with no known medical history
Sudden death in children or infants, even those with known medical history
Any indication or suspicion of neglect or abuse
Any person in custody or incarcerated
Any of the above types, regardless of the time elapsed between the traumatic event and death (e.g. sepsis from decubitus ulcers due to quadriplegia from gunshot wound 15 years prior)
Anyone may report any death to the Medical Examiner’s Office by calling 615-743-1800 or by paging 1-800-216-0107. We generally make a determination of jurisdiction at the time the death is reported; however, some complex or unusual cases may require more time (perhaps several hours) before a determination of Medical Examiner jurisdiction is made. The reporting individual will need to have the following minimum information about the deceased: Basic demographic information, reason for admission to hospital or emergency facility, length of hospital stay, any known medical history, and any known history of or suspicion of trauma, overdose, suicide, falls, or foul play. Medical examiner investigators may request additional or more detailed information.