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The phrase death certificate can describe either a document issued by a medical practitioner certifying the deceased state of a person or popularly to a document issued by a person such as a registrar of vital statistics that declares the date, location and cause of a person's death as later entered in an official register of deaths.
Each governmental jurisdiction prescribes the form of the document for use in its preview and the procedures necessary to legally produce it. One purpose of the certificate is to review the cause of death to determine if foul-play occurred as it can rule out an accidental death or a murder going by the findings and ruling of the medical examiner. It may also be required in order to arrange a burial or cremation to provide prima facie evidence of the fact of death, which can be used to prove a person's will or to claim on a person's life insurance. Lastly, death certificates are used in public health to compile data on leading causes of death among other statistics (See: Descriptive statistics)
Before issuing a death certificate, the authorities usually require a certificate from a physician or coroner to validate the cause of death and the identity of the deceased. In cases where it is not completely clear that a person is dead (usually because their body is being sustained by life support), a neurologist is often called in to verify brain death and to fill out the appropriate documentation. The failure of a physician to immediately submit the required form to the government (to trigger issuance of the death certificate) is often both a crime and cause for loss of one's license to practice. This is because of past scandals in which dead people continued to receive public benefits or voted in elections. Death certificates may also be issued pursuant to a court order or an executive order in the case of individuals who have been declared dead in absentia. Missing persons and victims of mass disasters (such as the sinking of the RMS Lusitania) may be issued death certificates in one of these manners.
In some jurisdictions, a police officer or a paramedic may be allowed to sign a death certificate under specific circumstances. This is usually when the cause of death seems obvious and no foul play is suspected, such as in extreme old age. In such cases, an autopsy is rarely performed. This varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction; in some areas police officers may sign death certificates for victims of SIDS, but in others all deaths of individuals under 18 must be certified by a physician. Accident deaths where there is no chance of survival (decapitations, for instance) may be certified by police or paramedics, but autopsies are still commonly performed if there is any chance that alcohol or drugs played a role in the accident.
A full explanation of the cause of death includes four items:
In most of the United States, death certificates are considered public domain documents and can therefore be obtained for any individual regardless of the requester's relationship to the deceased. Other jurisdictions take a different view, and restrict the issue of certificates. For example, in the State of New York, death certificates are only obtainable by close relatives, including the spouse, parent, child or sibling of the deceased, and other persons who have a documented lawful right or claim, documented medical need, or a New York State Court Order.
In Europe and North America, death records were kept by the local churches, along with baptism and marriage records. In what would become the United States, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first to have the secular courts keep these records, in 1639. By the end of the 19th century, European countries were pursuing centralized systems for recording deaths.
In the United States, a standard model death certificate was developed around 1910. This promoted uniformity and consistency in record keeping.
In the United States, certificates issued to the general public for deaths after 1990 may in some states be redacted to erase the specific cause of death (in cases where death was from natural causes) to comply with HIV confidentiality rules. In New York State, for instance, the cause of death on a general death certificate is only specified if death was accidental, homicide, suicide, or declared in absentia; all other deaths are only referred to as "natural". All states have provisions, however, whereby immediate family members, law enforcement agencies, and governmental authorities (such as occupational health and safety groups) are able to obtain death certificates containing the full cause of death, even in cases of natural death.
In some cases, such as the death of a minor or infant, certificates may be kept confidential from the public as requested by legal guardian and therefore cannot be obtained by the general public but rather through immediate family members.
Registration in the UK is organised separately in the constituent jurisdictions. A register of deaths contains the information supplied by an informant, nowadays usually containing and repeating the information given in a Medical Certificate of Death (MCOD) supplied by the medical practitioner who certifies that life is extinct, this being the real "death certificate" distinct from the "registration of a death" in a register. Further information might be added after the first registration if the death was the subject of an inquest (Northern Ireland or England and Wales) or a Fatal Accident Inquiry (Scotland); this can result in a later copy of a death registration giving more details of the cause of death or the associated circumstances.
In England and Wales, compulsory national registration of deaths began in 1837. Originally the death registration listed when and where a person died, their name and surname, the parent or parents (if the deceased was a child), sex, age, occupation, cause of death, the description and residence of the informant, when the death was registered and the registrar's signature. Further details have since been recorded including the deceased's date and place of birth, maiden surnames and other former surnames of women who have been divorced.
Beginning in 1879, a doctor’s certificate was necessary for the issuance of a death certificate (prior to that, no cause of death needed to be given).
The form of indexing and the layout of register pages generally follows that of England and Wales.
National registration began in 1855; registrations are rather more detailed than in England and Wales. In the first year of registration many more details than in later years were recorded including the children of the deceased with their ages, the deceased's birthplace and how long they were resident in the district where they died. The burial place was recorded from 1855 to 1860. Standard details have until now included the deceased's name, age, marital status, spouse(s) (if any), details of both parents, cause of death and the informant's description. Current (2011) registrations show the date of birth. The prescribed forms are part of secondary legislation and those for recent years can thus be seen online in the Statute Law Database.
Unlike England and Wales, information is not limited to being supplied in the form of certified copies; original register pages (or filmed images) can be viewed in person at local register offices or at the General Register Office in Edinburgh, online (fees apply) on the Scotlands People website or in microfilms (1855-1875, 1881, 1891) available at family history centres operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
These jurisdictions do not form part of the United Kingdom and each has its own registration system. Their older records tend to follow the layout used in England and Wales.
Stillbirths (beyond 24 weeks gestation) have been registered since 1927 in a register that is closed from public access. A single stillbirth registration takes the place of both birth and death registration for the stillborn infant. Prior to 1960 such certificates gave no cause of death.
Stillbirth certificates can only be ordered by the mother or father of the deceased contacting the General Register Office by phone or letter. In the event of the parents both having died, an adult sibling can order the certificate if they can provide the dates of death for both parents.
Registration of still-births commenced in 1939. The registers are not open to public view and extracts are only issued "in exceptional circumstances".
A 2007 article in People magazine revealed that in the case of a stillbirth it is not standard practice to issue both a birth certificate and a death certificate. Most states instead issue a "certificate of birth resulting in stillbirth".
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