Medical Examiner FAQs


 Why is the Medical Examiner involved in this case?

Wisconsin State Statute mandates certain deaths be investigated or at least reported to the Medical Examiner in the county where the death or injury occurred.

 What is the normal process of a death investigation?

In many cases when there is a sudden or unexpected death, at least two jurisdictional agencies are likely to be involved.  Law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction over the scene and associated physical evidence. The Medical Examiner’s Office is responsible for the body of the decedent and any physical evidence in direct contact with the body.  With the exception of life-saving efforts by EMS personnel, the body must not be touched or moved by anyone without the permission of the Medical Examiner.  In many cases the ME will respond to the scene after being requested by local law enforcement.  The ME will examine the body and photograph the scene prior to releasing the body to the funeral home.  At the funeral home, the ME may conduct a more thorough examination of the body and if indicated, collect biological samples.  

 Where will my loved one be taken?

The decedent will be taken to the funeral home that the family has requested.  If the family is not known or cannot be reached, the ME will contact the closest mortuary to respond to the scene and remove and store the body until next of kin can be contacted.

 When will an autopsy be done?

The ME will decide if an autopsy is necessary to establish the cause and manner of death.  If an autopsy is ordered by the ME, there is no charge to the family.  In most cases, if the cause of death is determined to be from “natural causes”, an autopsy is usually not necessary.

If any autopsy is ordered by the ME, the body will be transported to the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office in Anoka County, Minnesota.  There, Forensic Pathologist’s will conduct the autopsy on our behalf. 

In many cases, the cause of death is evident at the time of the autopsy.  However, further studies may be necessary in order to determine the cause of death.  These additional studies which may include toxicology and tissue samples, may take many weeks. 

 What if I want an autopsy to be done and the ME does not?

This happens actually fairly frequently.  If the ME does not feel a forensic autopsy is indicated, but the family wants one done anyway, the ME will assist the family in obtaining their own private autopsy.  In this case, the family is then responsible for all costs involved including transportation down and back.  The costs are high sometimes running in the $3000-$4000 range and all pathologists require cash payment upfront for the services as do many of the morticians who would be needed to do the transport.

 Will it be possible to donate organs or tissues?

Yes.  Depending on your situation, you may be offered the option to consent to the donation of certain organs, tissues, bones or eyes.  If donation is requested, the ME will contact our Tissue and Organ Recovery Organization and they will then contact the next of kin to discuss the situation.

 When will I be able to get a death certificate?

Your funeral home that you will be working with will generate a death certificate.  The funeral home will then forward this on to the ME, if the death is within our jurisdiction, for completion.  Your funeral director will work with you to make sure you can get certified copies which will be available through the Register of Deeds Office in Polk County.  In most cases, if there is no autopsy or other issues, it should take no more than a week or so to get a completed death certificate.  However, if there is an autopsy where toxicology is pending or an on going investigation, we would still sign the death certificate but we would mark it as “pending”.  This is still a legal document that serves as proof a death has occurred.  This is acceptable for many organizations.