A death certificate is a legal document which lists the location, time, and manner of death for someone who has passed away. Such documents are considered vital certificates, along with birth certificates and marriage certificates, which means that they must be filed with regional keepers of such certificates, such as county clerks. In many regions of the world, death certificates are also public records, which means that anyone can obtain a copy of one by making a formal request, although concerns about identity theft have made some nations question this practice.
Typically, a death certificate is filled out by a doctor or medical examiner. When the cause of death is readily evident, sometimes police officers are also allowed to fill out a certificate of death. As a general rule, the certificate must be issued as soon as possible, and doctors may be subject to penalties for failing to complete a death certificate. If someone has been autopsied to determine the cause of death, this may be indicated on the certificate of death.
Death certificates are also sometimes issued without the presence of a body in certain circumstances. For example, when people are presumed to be lost at sea or in catastrophic accidents, a certificate of death will be filled out so that surviving family members can file for benefits. These documents are also issued when someone has vanished for seven years or more, as the long absence strongly suggests death.
Without a death certificate, people cannot legally remarry, arrange for disposition of remains, file for benefits, or access the financial accounts of the decedent. For this reason, family members are usually issued copies of the certificate once it has been filed so that they can take care of all of the assorted errands which accompany death, from filing taxes for the decedent to accessing death benefits provided by insurance companies.
Typically, a death certificate is issued on the same day of the death, especially in the case of people who believe that their dead must be buried before sunset for religious reasons. If there is a substantial delay before the certificate of death is issued, family members may become quite upset, because without this critical document, they cannot move on with the myriad administrative tasks involved in coping with a death.
Because death certificates are public documents, medical examiners and doctors are very careful about how they write out the manner of death. In some regions, disclosure of certain illnesses such as AIDS is viewed as a breach of confidentiality, even after death, so the certificate of an AIDS patient may read “natural” in the cause of death field. In the case of suicide, some compassionate medical examiners may choose to write “natural” or “cardiac arrest,” especially if the deceased will be denied burial in a religious cemetery on the basis of suicide.