Your Questions

(Department of Health, Western Cape Government)
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Q. What is an unnatural death?
A. Unnatural deaths can be grouped as follows:
  • Deaths due to violence and the consequences of the injuries that result in death. This could be cases of homicide (murder or culpable homicide), suicide or accidents (including motor vehicle accidents). Consequences of injuries that may result in death include infections such as lung infections, blood clots to the lungs and tetanus or rabies after a dog bite.
  • When an anaesthetic was administered or the person had a surgical procedure shortly before death. It includes all types of anaesthetic (local or general) from for example deaths after administration of local anaesthetic for tooth extraction to administration of a general anaesthetic for large surgical procedures such as heart surgery.
  • When a person dies suddenly without pre-existing illness or if the death is unexplained. These deaths could happen in babies the so-called cot deaths or in adults.
  • Any death, including deaths that would otherwise be classified as being "natural" where it is suspected that the death was due to an act of neglect by any person including medical staff.
 
Q. Where will my relative/friend be taken?
A.To the Forensic Pathology Laboratory that serves that particular area in which the death occurred. This will usually be the closest facility.
 
 
Q. Is it necessary for me to come to the forensic pathology laboratory?
A. Anybody who knew the deceased and whom is in possession of the necessary/required identification documentation of the deceased. You should also bring your own ID document with you when you come to the Forensic Pathology Laboratory to do the identification.
 
Q. When are the family/relatives allowed to do this identification?
A. Please contact the Forensic Pathology Laboratory before making any arrangements for identification of the deceased as no physical identification can be done during the autopsy process.
 
 
Q. Who is allowed to do this identification?
A. Anybody who knew the deceased and whom is in possession of the necessary/required identification documentation of the deceased. You should also bring your own ID document with you when you come to the Forensic Pathology Laboratory to do the identification.
 
Q. What do I do in case of a lost ID document?
A. You should go to your nearest SAPS Station and in a statement (affidavit) verify the identity of the deceased or your own identity should your identity document be lost.
 
 
Q. Why is it necessary to identify the body of the deceased?
A. The identity of the deceased needs to be confirmed for the medico-legal process that follows from the unnatural death. The deceased is allocated a death register number (WC number) on admission to the Forensic Pathology Laboratory. Your identification of the deceased will confirm his/her true identity and ensure that the correct information regarding your relative/friend is noted in all documents involved in the process.
 
Q. Do I need to bring any other documentation?
A. In cases of sudden or unexpected death you should bring all medical documentation/information regarding the deceased. If the deceased is a baby, you should bring the Road to Health Chart (clinic card) of the baby with you.
 
 
Q. How long will it take before the deceased is released from the forensic pathology laboratory?
A. Once the physical identification is done, we will attempt to release the deceased as soon as possible. After completion of all necessary post mortem investigations, the deceased will be released by the forensic medical practitioner (doctor) and the death notification form will be issued.
 
Q. Where can I obtain the death notification form (dha 1663) for the registration of the death?
A. This document is confidential and will not be handed to the family/relatives. The sealed document will be handed to the undertaker for the purpose of registration of the death.
 
 
Q. Will I be charged for the services provided at the forensic pathology laboratory?
A. We do not charge for any investigation services. Once the deceased is ready for release the family will be allowed 48 hours to arrange with an undertaker of their choice for the removal of the body from the Forensic Pathology Laboratory. Thereafter a storage fee will be charged up to the day of removal of the deceased by the undertaker.
 
Q. Why is it necessary to perform a post mortem examination?
A. When a person dies due to unnatural causes, it is required by South African Law that a post mortem examination be performed on the deceased, so as to determine the cause of death. The permission of the family is not needed to perform the autopsy, and the next of kin may not deny this process. By careful examination of the outer surface of the body as well as the inner organs, the doctor will note down all the injuries and wounds on the deceased. In certain cases, for example where bullets entered the body, photos are taken to explain injuries accurately at future court proceedings.
 
 
Q. May a doctor of my choice attend the autopsy?
A. Yes, the family/relatives have the right to arrange that a doctor of their choice attend the autopsy on their behalf with the permission of the attending forensic medical practitioner (doctor). Any fees required by this private doctor should be negotiated and paid by the relatives. This process may not delay the autopsy.
 
Q. Who can we contact regarding the post mortem findings?
A. In terms of the Inquests Act, the post mortem findings may only be released to the investigating officer of the South African Police Service who is investigating the case.
 
 
Q. What about tissue/organ donation?
A. With your consent many types of tissues may be donated and thereby help others. If you would consider organ/tissue donation please provide your contact details to the Forensic Officer attending to the incident scene or contact the Forensic Pathology Laboratory within 12-48 hours. NO TISSUES WILL BE REMOVED FOR THIS PURPOSE WITHOUT YOUR CONSENT. Cornea, skin and bone can be donated within 12-48 hours after death as stated in the next table:

Tissue

Time limitation

Other considerations

Cornea

12 hours

Age: 10-70 years

Skin

24 hours

 

Bone

48 hours

Age: 18-55 years

Q. What should I do now?
A. As soon as possible contact the Forensic Pathology Laboratory regarding the visual identification of the deceased. You should also select a funeral home of your choice and inform the funeral director that the death is being handled by the Forensic Pathology Services. VERY IMPORTANT - No final funeral arrangement should be made until the post mortem examination has been performed and the DHA 1663 (death notification form) has been issued.
 
 
Q. How can the personal possessions be claimed?
A. The person identifying the deceased or a person appointed by him/her may collect the personal possessions or clothing if not required for further investigation purposes. In certain instances for example clothing may be kept for evidentiary purposes. This will be handed to the investigating officer. Further information regarding which personal possessions had been kept for evidentiary purposes will be provided to you at the Forensic Pathology Laboratory.
 
Q. When can the personal possessions be claimed?
A. Valuable personal possessions that were not retained as evidence can be collected on identification by above mentioned person(s). Clothing can only be collected once the autopsy process had been completed. Please verify that all personal possessions not required for further investigation are handed to you.
 
 
Q. What should I do if death occurred in a correctional facility?
A. The correctional facility will help you with the funeral arrangement.
 
Q. What can I do if there are no funds for burial?
A. The local authority will assist you with the process. Please enquire at the Forensic Pathology Laboratory.
 
 
Q. What is an autopsy?
A. An autopsy, also known as a post-mortem examination, is a medical procedure that consists of a thorough examination of a deceased person to determine the cause of death and to evaluate any disease or injury that may be present. Autopsies can be classified into cases where only the outer (external) surface of the body is examined (usually referred to as a post mortem examination) or where the outer surface of the body and the inner (internal) organs are examined (usually referred to as an autopsy).
 
Q. What is a forensic autopsy?
A. All autopsies performed at the Forensic Pathology Laboratory are classified as forensic autopsies. A forensic autopsy is carried out when the cause of death is considered to be unnatural or possibly unnatural.
 
 
Q. What is considered as an unnatural death?

A. Unnatural deaths can be grouped as follows:

  • Deaths due to violence and the consequences of the injuries that result in death. This could be cases of homicide (murder or culpable homicide), suicide or accidents (including motor vehicle accidents). Consequences of injuries that may result in death include infections such as lung infections, blood clots to the lungs and tetanus or rabies after a dog bite.
  • When an anaesthetic was administered or the person had a surgical procedure shortly before death. It includes all types of anaesthetic (local or general) from for example deaths after administration of local anaesthetic for tooth extraction to administration of a general anaesthetic for large surgical procedures such as heart surgery.
  • When a person dies suddenly without pre-existing illness or if the death is unexplained. These deaths could happen in babies the so-called cot deaths or in adults.
  • Any death, including deaths that would otherwise be classified as being "natural" where it is suspected that the death was due to an act of neglect by any person including medical staff.
Q. Why is it necessary to perform a post mortem examination?
A. When a person dies due to unnatural causes, it is required by South African Law that a post mortem examination be performed on the deceased. The permission (consent) of the family is not needed to perform the autopsy and the next of kin may not say no to this process. By careful examination of the outer surface of the body as well as the inner organs, the doctor will note down all the injuries and wounds on the deceased. In certain cases, for example where bullets entered the body, photos are taken to explain injuries accurately at future court proceedings.
 
 
Q. How is an autopsy performed?

A. There are two parts to the physical examination of the deceased: the external examination of the outer surface of the body and the internal examination of the organs.

The autopsy starts with a thorough external examination. The deceased will still be clothed at this stage. The doctor notes the kind of clothes and the position on the body. After removal of the clothing, the outer body surface will be examined for signs of injuries. These injuries will be carefully noted and may be photographed. If indicated, samples such as hair and nail clippings will be collected during the external examination process. X-rays may also be taken of the body in certain situations.

The internal examination consists of inspection of the internal organs of the body for evidence of trauma or diseases to assist in the determination of the cause of death. All the organs will be examined and any abnormalities will be noted in the autopsy report. The doctor will at this stage decide whether it is necessary to retain any specimens which would assist in determining the cause of death. These specimens may include tissue (organ) specimens for examination under the microscope and blood specimens for identification purposes, toxicological analysis, etc. Blood is routinely collected from most cases for alcohol concentration determination.
 

Q. What will be done after the completion of the internal examination?
A. All the organs will be placed back into the body, except for the specimens kept as evidence or to assist to determine the cause of death. The body will be reconstructed in such a way that it can be viewed, if desired, following the autopsy. The autopsy examination process complies with internationally accepted autopsy standards. No embalming procedures are done at the facility. This has to be arranged with the funeral parlour.
 
 
Q. Is a complete autopsy consisting of both outer and inner examination always done?
A. A post mortem may comprise of examination of the outer surface of the body only. In these cases there is no need to look inside the body because the doctor is happy that the person died from natural causes. A full medical history will be taken from the next of kin who come to identify the body at the facility and if it is clear from the history that no unnatural cause of death or foul play is suspected, the doctor at the facility will examine only the outer surface of the body for any signs of injury or disease processes. An X-ray examination of the body may sometimes be performed. If the doctor is satisfied that the cause of death is natural and if no injuries or suspicion of foul play exists, a death notification form (BI 1663) will be issued without performing an internal examination on the body and the cause of death will be indicated on this document as "natural causes".
 
Q. If my next of kin died of natural causes and was treated by a doctor, is an autopsy necessary?
A. If that doctor is happy that your next of kin died due to natural causes, he/she may issue a death notification form (BI DHA 1663) in order for you to register the death with Home Affairs.
 
 
Q. Can you tell if a person was under the influence of alcohol when he/she died?
A. In most deaths due to unnatural causes blood is taken form the deceased at the time of the autopsy. The blood is sent to the Forensic Chemistry Laboratory, National Department of Health to determine how much alcohol was present in the blood. These tests are not performed at the Forensic Pathology Service.
 
Q. Do you routinely test for drugs?
A. If the Pathologist/doctor suspects that the deceased used drugs, a screening test may be performed on the urine. If this test is positive or if no urine is available, a sample may be sent to the Forensic Chemistry Laboratory, National department of Health for drug analysis. It is important that you communicate any suspicions of drug abuse by the deceased to us so that we can take the necessary specimens for drug analysis.
 
 
Q. What is the wc number?
A. The WC number is an abbreviation for Western Cape and it is the prefix to the case number allocated to the body of your next of kin on admission to the Forensic Pathology Laboratory (FPL). It is important that you make a note of this number as we would require you to quote this number in all correspondence with the FPL or the pathologist.
 
Q. Would I be able to obtain a copy of the autopsy report?
A. We are not able to issue you with a copy of the autopsy report. In terms of the Inquest Act, the post mortem findings may only be released to the investigating officer of the South African Police Service who is investigating the case.

You can however contact the Facility Manager who will refer you to the pathologist/doctor who has performed the autopsy and whom will take the time to discuss the autopsy findings with you and answer any questions you might have regarding the cause of death to the best of their ability.
 
 
Q. How would I be able to get access to information regarding the completion of documents relating to the death of my next of kin for example insurance policy documents?
A. As mentioned above, we are not able to issue you with a copy of the autopsy report. The Facility Manager will refer you to the relevant Department/person where the procedures regarding completion of documentation will be explained to you. An administrative fee is involved in the completion of certain documentation. The cost involved will be communicated to you on application for the completion of documentation.
 
Q. What does it mean if the cause of death is stated as "under investigation"?

A. When the cause of death is not obvious at autopsy, if the doctor has requested certain special investigations or if the doctor needs further statements regarding the circumstances of death, the cause of death may be stated as "under investigation".

In all these cases, the Investigating Officer appointed by the SAPS, has to compile an Inquest docket including the statements of the key witnesses or medical staff in the case of a procedure related death. This process might lead to a considerable delay in the finalisation of the cause of death. Only after the doctor who performed the autopsy has perused the contents of this docket, would he/she be able to give an opinion on the cause of death.
 

 
Q. Would it then be possible to change the cause of death from "under investigation" on the death certificate to the final cause of death decided on after the investigation?
A. A letter has to be written by the Pathologist/doctor who did the autopsy to Home Affairs in Pretoria to request that the cause of death be changed. Home Affairs will then reissue a death certificate with the final cause of death stated on it.
 
Q. What are you to do when someone passes away at home?
A. Phone SAPS. SAPS will investigate and determine if it is Natural causes or an inquest be opened. If uncertain contact your local FPS facility for guidance/advice.
 
 

 

The content on this page was last updated on 15 March 2014