Frequently Asked Questions
Q. Where will my relative/friend be taken?
A. He/she will be taken to the funeral home or to the Coroner’s facility.
Q. Is it necessary for me to identify the body?
A. No. In most circumstances, visual identification is not required. Should it become necessary for you to identify the body (or bring records or x-rays) to the Coroner Division, we will contact you directly.
Q. Is viewing allowed?
A. No. The Coroner Division does not accommodate viewing. Arrangements may be made at the selected funeral home.
Q. How long will it take before my relative/friend is released from your office?
A. Generally, it should take no more than two to three days. Your funeral home will coordinate the release on your behalf.
Q. Why do I need a death certificate?
A. The death certificate is the official legal record of death. It includes information about the deceased and about their cause of death. Insurance companies, the United States Social Security Administration, and other agencies may request certified copies of the death certificate as proof of death.
Q. How can I obtain a death certificate?
A. 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.
Q. What should I do now?
A. Select a local funeral home. Please notify our office as soon as possible which funeral home you have selected to handle the arrangements. Our office does not select funeral homes, nor do we make arrangements.
Q. There are no funds for burial, what can I do?
A. If the deceased or the legal next of kin do not have sufficient funds for burial, the alternative may be County disposition. In these circumstances, proof of indigence is required. The legal next of kin should contact the selected funeral home, and additional information will be provided. If County disposition is authorized, there may be substantial delays in receiving a death certificate and as a consequence, certain benefits.
Q. My relative/friend was in the military, who can I contact for burial information?
A. Persons who have served in the United States Armed Forces, were honorably discharged, and meet other service requirements may be entitled to a Veteran's burial. For information contact the Fort Harrison Department of Military and Veterans Affairs at 406-442-6410 or online https://www.montana.va.gov/. For more information on Veterans or Social Security benefits, contact your funeral director.
Q. How and when can personal possessions be claimed?
A. Any of a decedent’s personal possessions in the custody of the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office Coroner Division may be claimed by the legal next of kin. Government identification cards belonging to the decedent will be returned to the issuing agency for disposition. To avoid any inconvenience to you, call the Coroner Division before coming to the Law and Justice Center. The Evidence Technician will advise you of any documents that will be needed and of any other requirements. Sometimes personal possessions are taken into custody by other law enforcement agencies. You will need to contact those agencies directly to recover personal possessions in their custody. Clothing is not usually considered property. Unless there is a need to hold clothing as evidence, it is released to the mortuary recovering the deceased. Clothing that presents a health and safety hazard will be disposed of for the safety of all persons involved.
Q. I need to enter my relative/friend's residence, but it is sealed. What can I do?
A. You must obtain permission from the agency listed on the door seal.
Q. Why is the Coroner Division involved?
A. State law requires the Coroner to inquire into and determine the circumstances, manner, and cause of all sudden, violent, or unusual deaths and those deaths where the decedent has not been seen by a physician 30 days prior to death. In such cases the deceased will be taken to the Coroner’s facility and examined by a physician to determine the cause of death. A death certificate is issued after the examination is completed. Occasionally, more extensive testing is required, in which case an interim or “Pending” death certificate is issued which will allow the family to make funeral arrangements. An amendment will later be issued to accompany the death certificate following completion of special testing.
Q. How long does it take to get the toxicology results?
A. 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.
Q. Can I request additional testing?
A. 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.
Q. What is an autopsy and are tissues, organs, blood and/or body fluids retained afterwards?
A. During an autopsy, a forensic pathologist examines the body, looking 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 as deemed necessary to the death investigation. 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.
Q. Why does the Coroner order autopsies?
A. The Coroner Division must determine cause and manner of death. Not every death requires an autopsy. 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.
Q. When will I know the cause of death?
A. The pathologist can sometimes determine the cause of death immediately after examination. Other times, the pathologist needs to have more tests done. In that case, the County will issue a deferred death certificate. While much of the toxicology testing can be completed in 6-8 weeks, it often takes longer than that. Once the additional testing is completed, the pathologist can amend the death certificate, if needed, with the final cause of death.
Q. What if I do not want an autopsy performed on my relative or friend?
A. We try to accommodate 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.
Q. What if I want an autopsy performed on my relative?
A. 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 discretion if one is clinically or legally necessary.
Q. Can I have an open casket service after an autopsy?
A. It depends. Autopsies do not eliminate the possibility of open casket services but not all decedents are appropriate for viewing due to trauma or other circumstances. Please consult with your local funeral home for more information.
Q. What does the coroner report include?
A. A coroner report includes the autopsy report, toxicology report, and the investigation report. Law enforcement reports and medical records are not provided by the Coroner Division. Photographs are not provided. A district court order submitted to the Lewis and Clark County Attorney is required to obtain the coroner report.
Q. Will an autopsy report be available to me?
Q. How much does a copy of the coroner report cost?
A. $1.00 per page.
Q. What should I do with my relative's or friend's prescriptions?
A. 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