The tragic and sudden death of a loved one is incredibly traumatic experience for bereaved family and whānau. The coronial process can be complex and unfamiliar but it can be helpful to know what to expect. We can help you understand the process, answer any questions you have and be there for you if you want someone to listen.
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You can call us or visit our How we can help page to find out more about who we are, how we can help you and how to access our support.
The justice system can be complicated and unfamiliar but knowing what to expect can help. We can help you understand and engage with the justice system, answer any questions you have, and be there for you if you want someone to listen.
We can support you with:
You can call us or visit our How we can help page to find out more about who we are, how we can help you and how to access our support.
If you or others have been injured, see a doctor, go to a hospital emergency department or call an ambulance on 111 regardless of whether you decide to report the incident or not.
A professional medical assessment can help your recovery and ensure physical safety.
Depending on the incident, consider having the doctor prepare a medical report that can be shared with police, if you are comfortable doing that.
For many, a ceremonial blessing of the site where a person has died is an essential part of processing the loss. It acknowledges of the spiritual impact of the tragedy and protects and guides the spirit of the deceased. It respects and honours the dignity of the deceased person, their family, whānau, and community.
For Māori, it can include lifting of the tapu on the site and karakia. Other cultural and faith groups have their own unique blessing ceremonies. Some family or whānau members may choose to visit the scene and be part of a blessing ceremony and others may not. They may prefer to hold a private blessing or open it to whomever would like to come, including from the community.
If you are an immediate family or whānau member wishing to organise a blessing for the site, you could contact your kaumātua, local marae, church or faith centre, the police officer who has been working with you, a Police Iwi Liaison Officer, or speak to a Support Worker.
If you don't personally know the family or whānau but witnessed or discovered the incident, you can speak to a Support Worker if you'd like to attend a blessing, provided it is open to the public and the family or whānau are comfortable with that.
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Any sudden death that is unexpected, violent, or suspicious will be investigated by a coroner. Coroners are responsible for determining the details surrounding the death, including how, where, when, and why it occurred. This information is important in listing the cause of death on the official death certificate.
There are many steps that are carefully and respectfully followed to do this job. It is a complex process that can vary according to circumstances of the death.
Many people and agencies become involved after a death such as a homicide or suicide. They understand how distressing this time is and will work respectfully and with care. You will be assigned a Coronial Case Manager who can advise and update you throughout the coronial process and answer any questions you may have.
Emergency services are there to help when you call 111. It could be Ambulance, Fire and Emergency, Police, or a combination of them. Their teams will do everything they need to and explain what will happen next. In some circumstances, search and rescue teams may also be involved in recovering the person’s body.
Police are required by law to investigate the cause of every unexplained sudden death on behalf of the coroner, and this process can take some time. Police will inform a local coroner that someone has died unexpectedly, and if it may be by homicide or suspected suicide. The police investigation involves questioning witnesses, speaking with those who discovered the death, and likely interviewing close family, whānau and friends of the deceased.
Police will remain at the scene until the forensic investigation is completed, collecting relevant physical evidence needed to assist the investigation and documenting it. They may take photos and occasionally personal items, which will be returned later. While the forensic investigation can be distressing, it is necessary for the police to carry out their duties.
A Family Liaison Officer will be assigned to provide support and keep your family informed throughout the investigation and any subsequent court proceedings. They can address any questions and provide contact information.
If you require cultural support, you can request support from a specialist Iwi, Pacific, or Ethnic Liaison Officer.
If you are a member of the Rainbow community, you can request support from a Diversity Liaison officer.
The coroner, who is a qualified lawyer appointed as a judicial officer, leads the coronial process with the support of Coronial Services under the Ministry of Justice.
They determine whether a post-mortem examination (autopsy) of the deceased’s body is needed to determine the cause of death and if an inquiry needs to happen.
Up until a person’s body is released to the immediate family or whānau following a post-mortem, a staff member of the duty coroner’s office will keep you and your family or whānau informed about what is happening.
Once all investigations are concluded, the coroner will prepare a formal report detailing their findings on the circumstances and facts of the death.
The Duty Funeral Director
After the initial forensic investigation is completed, police will contact a duty funeral director to transfer the person who has died to the nearest hospital mortuary (unless they died in a hospital). The person’s body will be safely kept there until they are formally identified, and their cause of death is confirmed. There is no cost for this transfer.
The Hospital Mortuary Team
The person’s body will be taken to the nearest hospital mortuary (or morgue), where they will be safely kept until formal identification and cause of death confirmation. The hospital mortuary team respectfully prepares the deceased person for viewing by loved ones and carries out post mortem examinations (if requested by the coroner).
Your Coronial Case Manager
A coronial case manager will assist you and your family or whānau throughout the coronial process, providing updates and answering your questions. They will inform you if an inquest will be held and when. You will be provided with their contact details for any inquiries during the process. Designating one family member as the key contact person on behalf of the family can be helpful.
Your chosen funeral director
The funeral director chosen by the immediate family or whānau can do as little or as much as they want them to do. A funeral director helps bereaved families and whānau in several ways, including collecting the person’s body from the mortuary, caring for them at their funeral home until burial or cremation, providing information about necessary legal requirements after a death and fulfilling the family’s choices for the funeral, tangihanga (tangi), or memorial event.
Immediate family or whānau members have the option to request viewing and spending time with the deceased person's body at the mortuary, before any post mortem is conducted.
All viewings must be authorised by the office of the duty coroner, as the body remains the responsibility of the coroner until it is released to the immediate family or whānau.
Some hospitals have a family or whānau room for viewing, usually with a screen or window between them and their loved one. The family won’t be able to touch the body or remove items from the body. Certain hospitals may also have dedicated family or whānau rooms where sitting with the body is permitted until its release.
Unfortunately, there are cases where viewing is not possible, particularly when the person has sustained severe injuries. This will be explained to you if this happens.
If you wish, you can also talk to a funeral director of your choice about any other options there are for sitting with or viewing your loved one’s body after it has been released from the mortuary, or about following any specific cultural traditions you need respected at this time.
If you and your family and whānau decide to view the body at any stage, it can help to know that your loved one’s appearance will have changed, including their facial features and skin colour, which is normal after a death but can understandably be unsettling for some people.
A post mortem (autopsy) is a physical examination of the person’s body to find out exactly how they died. It is requested by the coroner, who is the person legally responsible for establishing the cause of death, and is carried out by a forensic pathologist, who is a specially trained doctor.
After a suspected homicide, a post mortem and investigation are always required to confirm the cause of death.
Types of post mortem
The post mortem is usually carried out at the nearest hospital with a mortuary and a pathologist available. If the death has been in suspicious or complex circumstances the post mortem usually occurs in the nearest hospital that has a forensic mortuary. In this situation, the person’s body may need to travel away from their hometown. Coronial Services will organise this and cover all the costs involved.
The immediate family or whānau of the person who has died may have some cultural and spiritual needs that they would like respected during the coronial process.
They may feel a post mortem is not acceptable and decide to object to having one done, or they may want to know exactly how their loved one's body is being respected or cared for during the coronial process. It can be extremely distressing when the practices that a family, whānau, or their cultural and faith leaders would normally do for someone who has died cannot be done immediately. Coronial Services tries to make sure that such needs can be met.
As a member of the immediate family or whānau you’re welcome to contact your Coronial Case Manager at any time to discuss any cultural and spiritual need that you’d like considered during the post mortem or inquiry stages of the process.
You have the right to object to the post mortem, in particular if your loved one has died by suspected suicide, or ask for it to be done in a particular culturally appropriate way. The coroner recognises that immediate family or whānau may have personal concerns about a post mortem.
If the person’s death was due to a suspected crime
As it is suspected the death was caused by a crime, such as a homicide, the immediate family or whānau do not have the right to object to the post mortem. However, you do have the right to request that it’s done, as much as is possible, in a culturally appropriate way.
If you want to object or make a cultural request
Tell the coroner’s office as soon as possible, within 24 hours, by phoning Coronial Services on 0800 266 800. You should also tell the Officer in Charge of the investigation.
The coroner will decide if they can grant your request or not. If the coroner doesn’t agree to your request, you will have 48 hours to appeal their decision to the High Court. Speak immediately with the coroner’s office or to a lawyer about the steps you will need to take.
A post mortem may cause distress for families or whānau. Every effort is made to conduct the post mortem quickly, within 1-3 days. There can be delays for practical reasons, but they will always be kept to a minimum. It might take a bit longer if the death is considered suspicious or the medical examination is complicated. Your Coronial Case Manager will keep you updated.
It can be hard not being able to be with your loved one, but rest assured they are treated with care and respect by everybody involved.
When the person’s body has been released from the mortuary, you can decide what you would like to happen next. You may wish for family or whānau to collect the person’s body, or you may choose to call a funeral director to do this. After this, steps must be taken by the family or whānau to arrange a burial or cremation.
After their examination, the pathologist prepares a report for the coroner, stating the provisional (unconfirmed) cause of death and if they needed to retain any tissue samples for testing, what they are and what will happen to them. The final post mortem report is completed once confirmed test results are received, which can take several months depending on the complexity of the examination. The coroner uses the report to determine if an inquiry into the death is necessary, if they haven’t already done this.
Immediate family members can receive a copy of the report, except in ongoing police investigations. Your Coronial Case Manager can let you know when the final report is available and get a copy for you and your family to read.
It’s important to know that the report might include upsetting physical details and complex medical language that may be difficult to understand. Some families and whānau find discussing the report with a doctor helpful.
Coroners conduct inquiries to determine the cause and circumstances of death and identify ways to prevent similar deaths in the future. Not all deaths reported to a coroner require an inquiry, as findings can be made without one.
Inquiries usually follow the completion of criminal proceedings or any appeals, but if the court adequately establishes the cause and circumstances of death, an inquiry may be unnecessary.
During an inquiry, evidence is collected from police and other agencies, and a hearing is held where the coroner reviews the evidence to determine the cause and circumstances of death.
There are two ways that a coroner can hold a hearing:
The Coronial Case Manager informs the family or whānau about the date and location of the inquest.
During the inquest, the coroner determines the areas to investigate and invites various individuals to provide evidence, including family, whānau, friends, and witnesses. The coroner and anyone in the court can question those giving evidence if the coroner allows this. This means you and other members of the immediate family or whānau can ask questions, or you may like to have a lawyer to ask those questions for you.
If asked to give evidence, the Coronial Case Manager will inform you of the details and what to do. You have the option to bring support people, including a Support Worker, or choose not to attend due to potential distress of hearing sensitive details being discussed.
If an inquest hasn’t been ordered by a coroner, families, whānau and other interested parties can request one, and the final decision rests with the coroner.
After the inquest hearing, the coroner will write a report on what they have learned about the death, or their findings. It is an official record of the coroner’s decision about the cause and circumstances of a death, the confirmed facts the coroner learned through the investigation and in some instances, comments or recommendations about how similar deaths could be prevented in the future.
The coroner’s finding is a public document so anyone in the family, whānau, friends, members of the public, and the media is allowed to read it. There are times when the coroner can restrict publication of parts of a finding, but the rest of it will remain public.
Immediate family members can ask their coronial case manager for a copy of the finding to be sent to them. If you think it might be helpful to have someone to discuss it with, your Support Worker can go through it with you.