What is it?
A death certificate is the official document that declares a person is dead. Death certificates serve two purposes:
they prevent murder cover-ups by restricting those who can complete them for non-natural deaths to trained officials who generally have great latitude on whom they perform postmortem examinations, and they provide public health statistics. Death registration was first required in the United Kingdom in 1874. Before then, it was not even necessary for a physician to view the corpse. In the United States, Great Britain, and most industrialized countries, physicians must now sign a death certificate listing the presumed cause of death. Otherwise, a medical examiner (forensic pathologist) will intervene with an autopsy to determine the cause of death in the event that a case requires police investigation.
People use death certificates in multiple ways. Survivors need death certificates to obtain burial permits, make life insurance claims, settle estates, and obtain death benefits. Public health departments look for patterns that may signal specific health problems, such as clusters of cancers that may reveal unknown toxic waste dumps.
There are three types of death certificates in the United States, including a standard certificate, one for medical/legal cases, and one for fetal or stillborn deaths. All but two states require a death certificate for fetal deaths. However, the majority of states only require a certificate if the fetus was past twenty weeks of gestation. All are based on the international form agreed to in 1948 (modified for clarity in the United States in the 1990s). This form lists the immediate cause of death (e.g., heart attack, stroke), conditions that resulted in the immediate cause of death (e.g., gunshot wound to the chest), and other significant medical conditions (e.g., hypertension, atherosclerotic coronary artery disease, or diabetes). The form also includes a place to record whether an autopsy was performed and the manner of death such as natural, accident, suicide, homicide, could not be determined, or pending investigation.
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