Contents

Chapter 6
Statutory duties in determining the cause of death

Restrictions on dealing with a body before death has been certified

6.60The Act currently provides that, until the cause of death has been determined (or the coroner’s authorisation has been given):

The second restriction does not apply in a number of circumstances, including where a funeral director collects a body from a private home or rest home.65

6.61These provisions recognise that moving the body or disposing of the body may destroy some of the evidence of the cause of death that the doctor or coroner may need to consider. We have considered whether these provisions should continue and whether there is justification to extend the restriction to embalming.

Disposing of the body

6.62We consider that the prohibition on disposing of the body before the cause of death is determined (or the coroner has issued an authorisation) should continue under a new statute because it is vital that the doctor has established whether or not an examination of the body will be required to determine the cause of death, before the body is no longer available. While, currently, this requirement usually means that the funeral director obtains the actual MCCD form from the doctor, under the online process proposed above for recording the cause of death, there will need to be a process for checking that the online process has been completed.

Embalming the body and transferring the bodyTop

6.63Embalming is the process of injecting chemical preservatives into the body to slow the process of decay. It alters the appearance of a body and its chemical composition. In that way, it destroys some of the evidence available to a doctor or coroner for determining the cause of death. For this reason, it has been suggested to us that the cause of death should be determined before embalming. The disadvantage of this suggestion is that it may delay embalming and other preparations for the funeral.

6.64The purpose of the current restriction on transferring the body before the cause of death is determined is presumably so that all the circumstances of death are available to the doctor when making that determination. Similar to embalming, the disadvantage of this requirement is that it causes delay in funeral preparations while a doctor is found who can certify the cause of death. It can sometimes be distressing for families, or a management problem for rest homes, to have a delay in transferring the body to the funeral director.

6.65The balance between accuracy in cause of death determinations and delay in funeral preparations is addressed in many of the issues identified in this part of the Report. We consider that, on balance, there is a greater risk to accurate assessments of cause of death when a body is embalmed than when it is moved. While the circumstances of the place of death will be relevant to sudden deaths, they will not be relevant to most deaths that are a natural consequence of illness. Therefore, a blanket restriction on moving a body before the cause of death is determined would produce an unacceptable level of delay.

6.66In contrast, embalming a body may have a greater negative impact on the determination of the cause of death for the reasons described above. For that reason, we consider that the cause of death should be determined before a body may be embalmed.

Recommendation

R14The statute should provide that a person may not embalm or dispose of a body unless the cause of death has first been determined.

63Burial and Cremation Act, s 46AA.
64Section 46F(1).
65Section 46F(2).