Ask a Coroner Q&A (Part 2)

We’re back with Part Two! If you missed Part One, go ahead and check that out here. As always, if you have any questions for our Coroner, go ahead and ask them here!

Now on to the good stuff:

Q: “Doing some research for a television program — do body bags come with a name tag on the exterior? If so, when did that become common practice? Is the toe tag still the dominant method for identifying the deceased?”

A: No, no and no.

We have never done a toe tag… In my 20+ years I’ve never even seen a toe tag (that I recall).  I write with a sharpie marker on the outside of the body bag, the person’s name, date and my initials.  Some places have medical wrist bands that they use.  Some places have a sticker that is filled out and goes on the body bag.  I’m more than certain people still use toe tags somewhere – just not here.  Also, a lot of the bigger jurisdictions have moved to a bar coding system – so, the wrist band and/or body bag has a bar code which is scanned for identification purposes.


Q: “A deputy coroner chose not to order an autopsy on a 63 year old deceased male because his head and neck were cyanotic. He described the blue color of the head and neck as the cardiac collar, indicating the man died from a heart attack. No tox screen was performed and the man was embalmed and buried. The man’s will is now being contested and his family is making death threats against the attorney trying to investigate the death. Any thoughts on possible causes of death and the “cardiac collar” theory?”

A: When blood flow is restricted because of a blockage in one of the coronary arteries there is often a bluish/purplish distinct tint that begins at approximately the nipple line and goes up – especially if the person is lying on a bed or on the floor, and the head is resting somewhat below the level of the chest – which causes the blood to pool in that area.  It is a distinct sign of sudden cardiac death.  The family should not make death threats – that’s bad form.  The attorney will not be able to change the cause of death.  Simply get a copy of the coroner’s report in addition to the death certificate.  I can’t even begin to guess at a cause of death.  However, I would suggest a more ‘blanket’ type cause of death such as atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease or hypertensive cardiovascular disease in a case such as this.  Using acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) is specific and really should only be used if it is a known blood clot or complete blockage in one of the coronary arteries.  Given the information you provided, however, it’s probably a fair assumption.


Q: “Will the coroner’s office try to figure out whether the deceased had life insurance before they hand over the body to the state? This would be in order to see whom the beneficiary is (either family they had not been able to locate who can then make arrangements; or the funeral home so they can have a proper burial?). Will the funeral home be notified so they can file a claim for burial/cremation?”

A: Several things to say here: We don’t look for life insurance before releasing the body for disposition at the cost of the state.  What happens, is we hold the body for a long time and exhaust all efforts to find the next of kin.  If no one is ultimately found, the body is released for disposition at the cost of the state and ALL assets are seized by the state.  If someone is found and wants nothing to do with the body – they sign away all rights to all assets and the body is buried/cremated by the state.  Generally, if there is a life insurance beneficiary that person is in a position to be able to cover the nominal costs of a direct cremation if nothing else.


Q: “This question is a personal and honestly depicted scenario about suicide. Please be extremely honest and I will explain further should you require it. Please tell me if a male who is over 6ft commits suicide by hanging .. outside in the woods and is there undiscovered for approx 14-16 days what would he look like … based on normal animal, weather and decomposition, I really need to know because something is bugging me about this.”

A: I will be as blunt as possible to answer your question as directly as I can.  My answer is: I don’t know.  I would need to know many more things. Are we talking outside in the woods in Florida for 16 days or outside in the woods in Northern Maine for 16 days?  Are we talking July or November?  Are we talking hanging with suspension or hanging with feet on the ground? With some more information, I might be able to answer this question more thoroughly. Feel free to email and I will try to help you some more.


Q: “Is it true that the legs will cross if a person dies while standing?”

A: No.


Q: “My son drowned 10 years ago and was in a river for 3-4 days before he was found. He was not embalmed, and buried in a coffin. What would the condition of his body/ bones be now?”

A: First off, my sincerest condolences for the loss of your son. Decomposition is usually slowed while the body is still in the water and then accelerated considerably when out of the water.  After 10 years, and not embalmed, my thought is that he is mostly skeletonized at this point. Again, I’m so sorry.


Q: “I am doing research for a book I am writing….just a quick question, that you may or may not be able to answer: If a person who has emphysema, is on breathing treatments to open his lungs to be able to breath, along with oxygen and was suffocated, is this something that would show up in an autopsy, or would the other conditions probably make this undetectable?”

A: My first thought is, “why is someone with emphysema and oxygen dependent being autopsied  in the first place?”  There has to be more to the story to even consider an autopsy of someone with that kind of medical history.


Q: “Can forensic autopsy prove that a newborn infant has been purposely smothered/suffocated? If so how does the coroner reach the conclusion that the infant did not die of “natural causes.”‘

A: “Sometimes” is my best answer. Sometimes there is blanching where the nose and mouth were covered.  Sometimes there are frenulum tears.  Sometimes it is just scene interpretation and personal interviews that leads to a diagnosis of suffocation.


Thanks for reading! Stick around (subscribe to our site to receive email notifications) for Part 3 which will be published soon. Keep the questions coming!

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