Frequently Asked Questions:

How can I obtain a death certificate?

Our Department does not maintain and/or distribute death certificates.  The Clerk and Recorder at the City/County Building located at City/County Building, 316 North Park Avenue, Helena, MT  59601 (406)-447-8334 or the Office of Vital Records Department of Public Health and Human Services, 111 North Sanders, Room 6, Helena MT 59604 (406) 444-2685.


What is an autopsy?

 During autopsy a forensic pathologist examines the body.  The pathologist looks for disease or injury.  He or she takes specimens of organs and body fluids for testing. The Department of Justice Forensic Science Division, also known as the Montana State Crime Lab, may retain tissues, organs or body fluids.  Sometimes the pathologist keeps a whole organ such as the brain or heart for more testing.  This testing occurs after the release of the body to the mortuary chosen by the next of kin.  The pathologist then prepares a written autopsy report.  These reports typically take 6-8 weeks.


Why does the Coroner order autopsies?

The Office of the Coroner’s concern is to determine cause and manner of death.  Determining the cause of death in a person may help identify family histories, contagious disease, and help prevent further premature or preventable deaths within the community.  In criminal cases, autopsies help courts to reach a just verdict. Finally, autopsies help families understand how the death occurred and provide closure.  This can be an important step in the grieving process.


What does the coroner report include?

A coroner report includes the autopsy report, toxicology report, and the investigation report.  Law enforcement reports and medical records are not provided by the Office of the Coroner.  Photographs are not provided in the coroner report.  Only under a court order will the Office of the Coroner release photographs to the legal next of kin.


How do I obtain the coroner report?

A court order must be submitted to the Lewis and Clark County Attorney.


How much does a copy of the coroner report cost?

$1.00 per page.


What if I do not want an autopsy performed on my relative or friend?

Please let us know as soon as you can.  We try to accommodate the family’s wishes when possible; however, sometimes an autopsy is required. A legal certificate of religious belief must be filed prior to the autopsy.  A court order can override this certificate.  Religious belief exemptions cannot be made for children under 18.

People with a religious objection to an autopsy can prepare a Certificate of Religious Belief, Montana Government Code ____________ explains how.


What if I want an autopsy performed on my relative?

 If your relative or friend is not a Coroner case, a private autopsy can be done.  However, the legal next of kin must issue a statement as to why they would like a private autopsy and will need to provide a signed death certificate, all medical records, and pay the fee for private autopsy.  Exhumation costs are not included.

The Medical Examiner determines the level of examination needed for all Coroner cases.  Not all cases that fit coroner criteria require an autopsy.  You may request that an autopsy be performed, but it will be the Medical Examiner’s decision if one is clinically or legally necessary.


Can I have an open casket service after an autopsy?

It depends. Autopsies do not eliminate the possibility of open casket services. However, not all decedents are appropriate for viewing due to trauma or other circumstances.  Please consult with your local funeral home for more information.


When will I know the cause of death?

The pathologist can sometimes determine the cause of death right after examination. Other times, the pathologist needs to have more tests done.  In that case, the County will issue a deferred death certificate.  Toxicology testing can be a lengthy process due to the thoroughness and quality of our lab testing.  While much of the toxicology testing can be completed in 6-8 weeks, it often takes longer than that.  Thank you for your patience.

Once the additional testing is completed, the pathologist can amend the death certificate, if needed, with the final cause of death.


What should I do with my relative's or friend's prescriptions?

Prescription medication should be given directly to the Coroner or Deputy Coroner.  They will properly dispose of these medications per Environmental Protection Act (EPA) and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) requirements.


How long does it take to get the toxicology results?

Toxicology testing can be a lengthy process due to the thoroughness and quality of our lab testing.  While much of the toxicology testing can be completed in 6-8 weeks, it often takes longer than that.  Thank you for your patience.


Can I request additional testing?

Depending on the case, it is possible but will be at your own expense if the Coroner or Deputy Coroner did not believe additional testing is necessary to the death investigation.