About 90,000 people die in Ontario every year. Of those, about 16,000 are reported to the Coroner’s Office (or roughly 17%). According to the Office of the Chief Coroner Report for 2009-2011, in 2010, there were 16,415 coroner’s investigations.
Many people do not want to be autopsied – whether it is because of religious beliefs or other personal wishes. However, in Ontario the range of cases which are supposed to be reported to the Coroner are quite broad.
Under the s. 10 of the Coroner’s Act, anyone who is aware that person died of the following causes is required to report that death to the Coroner’s Office:
(iv) misconduct, or
(b) by unfair means;
(c) during pregnancy or following pregnancy in circumstances that might reasonably be attributable thereto;
(d) suddenly and unexpectedly;
(e) from disease or sickness for which he or she was not treated by a legally qualified medical practitioner;
(f) from any cause other than disease; or
(g) under such circumstances as may require investigation.
In addition, there are a number of other situations where autopsies are actually prescribed by legislation – including when a woman dies as a result of pregnancy or childbirth, when a person dies while in custody, if a person dies in hospital and a medical mistake is suspected, or when an employee dies on the job as a result of a workplace accident.
Once a death is reported, the coroner will then decide, usually by phone, whether to attend at the scene in order to look at the body and determine if an autopsy should be performed.
The Ontario Coroner’s Code of Ethics does provide that consideration should be given to the beliefs or religious views of the deceased, but ultimately it is always up to the Coroner to make the call:
Coroners in the exercise of their duties, shall respect the beliefs and/or religious views of the deceased, and where an investigation is for reason only that the deceased person has not had medical attendance prior to the hour of death, shall recognize that the exercise of this free choice is not in itself reason for further investigation or autopsy, unless there is evidence of other conditions stipulated in section 10 of the Coroners Act, 1990.
In California, the State of California Government Code Section 27491.43 goes further and provides that unless foul-play or a contagious disease are suspected as the cause of death, if a person has prepared a “certificate of religious beliefs” stating that they oppose autopsies – which must be signed by the Deceased and witnessed by two people – the Coroner shall not perform the autopsy.
In Ontario it is always a matter of balancing the public interest with the private wishes of the individual. Like California, in cases where foul-play or a contagious disease is suspected, it would be very unlikely that an autopsy could be avoided.
For those who have an objection to being autopsied, the best advice is to make your wishes known to your next-of-kin. You might also consider preparing a document similar to the Certificate of Religious Beliefs, stating that you object to being autopsied. While there is no guarantee that it will be effective in preventing an autopsy, it may influence the Coroner in their exercise of discretion.
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