Unnatural Cause of Death and How to Proceed

An unnatural cause of death is distinguished from death by natural causes by the location of the fatality. This could be any location – in a foreign land, province or city of normal residence. Procedures in the instance of an unnatural death should be adhered to and they are highlighted in the subsequent paragraphs below.

Treat the Area as a Crime Scene

Primarily, if one is the first to arrive at the scene of an unnatural death, it is paramount not to move the body of the deceased, any slight alteration is considered as tampering with the evidence that is bound to lead to investigating the mystery behind the cause of the untimely demise. Tangible traces such as the nature and state of decomposition, the body position or other relevant details could be used to establish the cause, time and circumstances of death.

In the Case of an unnatural cause of Death – Report the incident

unnatural cause of death

Secondly, report the incident to the nearest police station. The South African Police Service (SAPS) will need all the relevant information relating to the tragedy to facilitate a prompt response. Therefore co-operate fully.

Thirdly, be aware of the time and place where the body has been found. Make sure that all the necessary details of the body are recorded irrespective of time of day. Other factors such as the place, situation in which the death occurred, the types of vehicles involved, details of any other person involved.

The more evidence, the lighter the load is during a time of investigation. Evidence will go a long way in providing clarification to the loved ones of the deceased as well as serving as a means of closure.

Finally, if the departed is a member of family, friend or colleague, contact them.

Removal of the body after an unnatural cause of death

Lastly  get to know the location of the mortuary as a necessary tool to facilitate identification by the relatives or yourself. The SAPS can come in handy organizing the removal of the body to conduct an autopsy.

The body of a departed one can only be removed from the scene of death after permission from the SAPS; therefore it is regarded as their property. As soon as it changes hands in the mortuary, it then belongs to the Department of Health.

Frequently Asked Questions About an Autopsy

An autopsy is one of the most misrepresented and misconstrued topics when looking at death. As a means for determining the cause of death, an autopsy involves the examining and dissecting of a body by professionals referred to as pathologists.

It is the only means to identify the cause of death whether natural or unnatural. Previously, cases of death that were thought to be as a result of natural death, such as a heart attack, have been proved otherwise after the procedure.

Definition of Autopsy

This is referred to as a scientific, logical and objective method of determining the cause of death. It involves the systematic examination of the body tissues and organs and an additional review of the medical history of the deceased may be done. The procedure is conducted under the supervision of a medical practitioner,

Laws regulating autopsy

To legally perform an autopsy to ascertain whether it was an unnatural cause of death or some other unexplained reason, the investigation must have the consent of the family members. However in the instance of reservations by family members due to cultural or religious beliefs, irrespective of whether the order is legally binding or out of mutual consent, the family can go to court and a hearing will be scheduled by the inquests magistrate.

All forensic or medico-legal autopsies in South Africa are regulated by two acts namely: the Inquest Act No. 58 of 1959 and the National Health Act

Information from an unnatural cause of death remains confidential to only the concerned parties while the case is still sub judice or under judgement. It may only be released at the discretion of the inquests magistrate and family members can get in touch with the investigations officer for SAPS

 Conceptual Framework

Autopsies provide detailed accounts on how the death occurred; some of these are traced by looking at the degree of the injury in terms of severity. In the case of a shooting, the direction of the gun shot and the position of the body will be examined.

Demystifying the cause of death, regardless of how obvious it looks is what autopsies address, for instance, tracing the involvement in drug and substance use will be found by examinations of tissues and bodily fluid samples or in case of a suicide from a supposed poisoning or overdose, an additional toxicology test will be done, or in the case of hanging, a neck dissection will be performed. It should be noted that photographs will be used to help in clarifying the injuries.

A body should be removed from the mortuary within 48 hours otherwise a daily charge will be incurred. In an instance where the cause of death is unknown a death certificate will be indicated as “Cause of Death Pending”. Once the pathologist is done and fully convinced that the examinations are complete the body will be released to the family for burial.

Procedure for Autopsy

All the physicians involved in the medico-legal autopsies are well trained in the study of diseases and anomalies in the body, they have to be registered by the Health Professions’ Council of South Africa (HPCSA).  The entire procedure is therefore conducted in an orderly and organized fashion by forensic pathologists or medical doctors as mandated by law under the National Health Act.

The types of autopsies include:

  • Autopsies ordered by the state to ascertain the reasons behind an unnatural cause of death.
  • Research purposes or for purposes of training in a medical context.

It is imperative to note that, no extra charges are incurred for investigations conducted in a laboratory affiliated to the state.

Examination steps

An Autopsy involves three procedures. An external examination that includes a detailed examination of the body, all the physical attributes such as the sex, eye colour, hair colour, the subjects clothing are noted. The body is then undressed to examine elemental clues such as scars, residues, injuries or even paint flakes or anything that can be used as a lead to the cause of death. Finally an Internal examination, dissections are done on the upper part of the body, these includes the chest and abdomen area and if required the brain too.

The body is then reconstructed, this primarily involves either the putting back of the body organs in their rightful place or cremating the body as per the family members’ preferences or as mandated by law.

Family members can view the body before the standard procedure and also at their discretion talk to the medical doctor involved in the postmortem.

Length of Time for the Postmortem Procedure

On average a postmortem takes approximately two to three hours, however in some cases it may be longer due to the unnatural cause of death. Some of the factors that determine the time duration includes; If the mortuary has a lot of procedures and tests to conduct, limited number of staff personnel, the technicality of the case, a complex case is bound to be time consuming.  The forensic pathologists may opt for the medical history of the deceased and this may at times not be a straight forward task. Finally, searching for clues as indicated in the procedure may well take time.


Principally, postmortem procedures are carried out after hours only under special instructions. These may be due to restrictions brought about by religious beliefs, probably the family is not within the specific area where the postmortem is to be done and they will not be readily available, or finally based on an appeal by the inquests magistrate as a result of a court proceeding .

An after-hours autopsy may incur the family additional costs. This is because of coordination with other relevant experts, for instance key decisions may have to be made and this involves other departments such as the laboratory and radiology.

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All info was correct at time of publishing