Registration and statistics relating to death

In most Western countries, a person cannot be buried or cremated without a certificate stating the cause of death. This is usually issued by the doctor attending the person at the time of death. If the person has not attended a doctor for a certain statutory period, then an inquest into the cause of death has to be carried out; this is usually preceded by a post-mortem examination of the body to ascertain the pathological causes of death. If the death occurs after a course of treatment in hospital, one of the doctors in attendance will fill in the medical certificate with the cause of death. The ward sister will inform the relatives of the death and arrange for them to claim the dead person’s possessions. If a person has died in an accident, the police will probably ask a relative to identify the body. Most countries keep records of mortality statistics, which are of great interest to health care planners. The statistics are also useful in correlating relationships between work or environmental hazards and certain kinds of disease.

Medical use of the body

It is now becoming increasingly common for individuals of all ages to carry donor cards which allow the removal of one or more parts of the body – such as the kidneys – for use in either transplants or medical research. Even so, if at the time of death the next of kin should require it, they can legally overrule the request.

If, on the other hand, the dead person has expressed a wish (either in writing or verbally in front of two witnesses) that his or her body should not be used, those instructions cannot be overruled, not even by the next of kin.

In the absence of either type of instructions the next of kin or executor is allowed to donate the body or specific organs for medical use providing no close relative forbids it.

In cases where the body has been donated for medical use, arrangements must be made as soon as possible after death has occurred for the organs to be removed. This ensures that the organ remains in the best possible condition before transplantation.