In many locations, a coroner doesn't need many skills beyond the ability to shake hands and kiss babies -- they're elected and don't have too many responsibilities. However, the responsibilities they do have are important ones. Unlike medical examiners who are usually medical doctors with specialties in forensic pathology, coroners are elected officials who identify the deceased, help determine an obvious cause of death when no autopsy is needed and complete the paperwork for the family.
Each local government has different requirements for coroners, but most require that a coroner have at least basic forensic pathology skills. Some states, such as Kansas, Ohio, and Louisiana, require that coroners obtain certification as forensic pathologists, whereas in highly populated counties in North Dakota, coroners must be licensed physicians. As a coroner in most locations, you won't perform autopsies, but you will have to explain how a person died. For example, instead of saying the deceased fell off a ladder, you might describe the cause of death as head trauma as a result of a fall. Most coroners deal with accidental deaths where the cause of death is obvious. In many states, like Pennsylvania, in cases where the coroner is unable to determine the cause of death, he must hire a pathologist to perform an autopsy and report his findings.
In addition to having a friendly nature and a strong handshake so you can get elected to the position, you must also show sensitivity to families who just lost a loved one. The coroner is often their main source of communication about the death and the next steps, such as how long it takes to get the death certificate. Coroners also make sure the deceased's personal belongings are returned to the family -- and typically serve as a witness at cremations. Dealing with grieving families requires a gentle touch and a fair amount of patience.
Coroners are often called upon to testify in court about their observations regarding the deceased. This might include problems with insurance claims or family lawsuits. As a coroner, you should have good note-taking skills so you can speak intelligently about what you observed. Also, you need to understand proper testifying procedure, such as answering a simple "yes" or "no" and giving just the facts unless you are asked for your opinion. In most cases, you won't be grilled like a medical examiner would; you aren't expected to have the same pathology knowledge. However, sharing your observations about a broken car jack or a missing rung on a ladder at an accident site can add weight to a family's lawsuit against the manufacturer, for example.
You might think there's one straight answer for what it takes to become a coroner, but that would be too easy. Coroners are most common in small, rural towns where there aren't too many homicides that need investigating. Most jurisdictions require that a coroner be at least 21 years old, a registered voter, and a county resident for at least a year. If you have a felony on your record, you might have to forget your dream of becoming a coroner, although some governments allow felonies that don't involve "moral turpitude," which means they aren't contrary to good morals. While several states are moving away from coroners and towards a medical examiner system, the process is a slow-go because coroners are usually written into a state constitution -- and small counties don't have the budget to support the conversion.
- Chippewa Herald: What Does a Coroner Do?
- South Carolina General Assembly: Qualifications Required for Candidates for Coroner
- Georgia Coroners Association: How Elected, Commissioned, Qualified, and Removed
- Indiana State Coroners Training Board: Resources
- PBS: How Qualified Is Your Coroner?
- Cumberland County Pennsylvania: Does the Coroner perform autopsies?
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images