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Peggy Farooqi
Mum of 3 (1994, 1995, 1998)- born in East Germany --lived in UK/ Kent since 1993 -- studied criminology -- love reading / writing / travelling / needlecraft 
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29 June 2014

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4. Time of Death

Legally, you are not dead until a person who is authorised to do so comes and pronounces life extinct. Usually, it will be a medical doctor who pronounces life extinct - this 'act' also determines the date and time of death.

In England and Wales, also certain specifically trained ambulance personnel and nurse practitioners can pronounce life extinct.

So, a body which gets found today 29th of June will have this date of death, even though the body could be very decomposed and has obviously died a long time ago. But as it is practically almost impossible to find out exactly when life ceases to exist, the Coroner works with the legal time of death.

It can sometimes be confusing when, for example, a family sits with their loved one in hospital who is about to die. The patient may 'slip away' on Saturday at around 11pm. But the doctor only comes in after midnight (maybe to give the family some time with their deceased loved one), and thus, the date of death will be the following day, Sunday. 

The question I get asked most often in the Coroner's Office is: Can you please tell me when she/he has died? And I always have to disappoint them and point them to the legal time of death. No, we cannot tell when grandma died. 

A post mortem cannot establish when the person died. Yes, there are certain signs on the body (stages of maggots etc), but a pathologist who is only there to establish the cause of death would usually not comment on it. This would be a different lego-medical field, and quite simply, for the Coroner, it does not make a great deal of difference when life ceased to exist (the actual time of death). It is very difficult to establish this. One would need to take the temperature of the body when found (deep anal thermometer) - the internal body temperature falls roughly 1 degree an hour. Further parameters need to be taken into consideration, such as temperature in the room, temperature outside, moisture, health condition of the body (did he/she had in infection - decomposes quicker), were the bowels full etc etc. The Coroner does not go into this, as, again, we do not require it, though we understand very often the families of the deceased are very anxious about that fact.

It is a different matter if the death is subject to a murder investigation. In that case, the police may need to establish the time of death more accurately - to rule out alibis etc. A lot of extensive forensic examinations are required, and than expert opions are sought, and it will be most likely that the police will get a  likely time of death between… and …. rather than an exact time. It is also possible that the prosecution and the defendant have different experts on that matter who have different options on the time of death. 

So, as you can see, it is indeed not straightforward and we as Coroner's Officers only work with the 'time life pronounced extinct by a person authorised to do so'. 

Peggy x