Medical Examiners (ME's) and Coroners are charged by the state to determine cause of death. In the case of an accident, sudden death, homicide or suicide, the resulting investigation can lead to conflict between secular practice and Jewish law (halacha) or tradition (minhag).
In order to help Medical Examiners navigate these issues and sensitize them to the concerns of Jewish mourners, Dr. Norman Goodman, Jeffrey Goodman, Esq. and Walter I. Hofman, M.D. have published a primer on Jewish practices Autopsy: Traditional Jewish Law and Customs “Halacha” in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. Norman Goodman is the former Chester County Chief Deputy Coroner and Walter Hofman is the Montgomery County Coroner so they both have a great deal of experience in this domain.
Traditional Jewish law encourages a speedy burial and respect for the corpse, keeping it intact and covered while while members of the Jewish burial society respectfully prepare and sit with it to ensure respectful treatment in honor of the deceased. There are important exceptions. For example,
- “burial can be delayed for the sake of honoring the dead, to procure a coffin [by tradition a simple pine box], … or to await” the speaker who will deliver the eulogy,
- burial can be delayed to identify the deceased,
- autopsy are allowed if this may save a life, for example to discover death related to a genetic condition.
The authors review how deaths are investigated in the modern State of Israel and give advisory guidelines for autopsies of observant Jews in the United States.
In many cases, new technologies allow the Medical Examiner to obtain the necessary information through minimally invasive procedures.
- Virtospy: Computed Tomography (CT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans now allow coroners to study a detailed 3-dimensional computer model of the decedant.
- Laparoscopy and Thoracoscopy allow the coroner to examine internal organs through small openings in the body.
For specific situations in your personal life, be sure to consult your rabbi for directly pertinent information and assistance that can be brought to bear through rabbinic training, authority and relations with local law enforcement officials.