Overview of Death by Natural Causes

A phrase that you undoubtedly hear and see with some regularity is “death by natural causes.” Despite regular exposure to the phrase, if you pause for a moment, you may not really know what is meant by the term death by natural causes. We provide you an understanding of this manner of death.

Basic Death Related Terms

There are two basic categories of death related terms:

Cause of death is the underlying reason why a person died. Cause of death refers to an injury or disease that commenced the process or series of events that results in an individual dying.

Manner of death is the circumstances that resulted in the initiation of the process of death referenced a moment ago. Manner of death is designated as either natural or unnatural.

Even though people commonly use the phrase “natural causes,” that term technically is not referring to cause of death. Rather, it references that the manner of death was the result of some natural circumstance like disease or “old age.”

Unnatural causes of death include:

  • Homicide
  • Suicide
  • Accident

Arguably, a natural death is one that occurred because of something that is not a homicide, suicide, or accident.

There one final way in which the manner of death can be categorized. There are situations in which the manner in which a person died cannot be determined, even with the best efforts of a coroner and other forensic specialists. In such a situation, the manner of death is classified and undetermined.

State Law, Natural Death, and Death Certificates

State governments throughout the United States (including in California) utilize the definitional structure set forth a moment ago in formulating their own laws on the subject of matter of manner of death for the purposes of death certificates. Laws in most of the 50 states will delineate manner of death on a death certificate using five broad categories:

  • Natural
  • Homicide
  • Accident
  • Suicide
  • Undetermined

When the manner of death is natural causes, a death certificate typically delineates the manner further by enumerating a specific cause, including but not limited to:

  • Heart disease
  • Lung disease
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Other organ diseases

The Process of Classifying Manner of Death

Oftentimes, determining the manner of death is not challenging. For example, if a person was diagnosed with some type of cancer, ultimately ends hospitalized and then in hospice care, because the disease could not be successfully treated, the determination of the manner of death as “natural” typically would not be a complicated process.

At the other end of the manner of death spectrum, classifying a specific death should not be challenging if a person drowns in a pool. Particularly if people witnessed the drowning, there should be no issue with the classification of the manner of death as unnatural and an accident.

With these points made, there are instances in which a death actually occurred by homicide and the perpetrator did his or her best to disguise the incident as being death by some other cause. For example, a homicide perpetrator might attempt to mask a homicide as a suicide. Indeed, there is a multitude of cases in which a homicide was masked by a perpetrator and initially classified as a natural manner of death.

California state law and the laws in other states call in the coroner when an issue exists as to the manner of death. The medical examiner will perform an autopsy as part of the process of determining the manner and perhaps the actual cause of death. There are instances when the results of the autopsy are inconclusive and further forensics analysis is necessary. This analysis typically comes in the form of lab testing.

Next of kin of a person who has died under questionable circumstances cannot proceed with the burial or cremation of their deceased loved one without a signed death certificate. When a coroner is unable to reach a determination of manner of death following an autopsy, the medical examiner will issue a death certificate that lists the manner and cause of death as pending. This permits next of kin the ability to move forward with a funeral and disposition for their loved one.

When lab results are obtained, the manner and cause of death will be changed with specific information based on those supplemental findings. If the manner or cause of death (or both) still cannot be identified, a revised death certificate nonetheless will issue. In this case, the death certificate will read the manner and cause of death is undetermined.

Another situation in which manner and cause of death can prove challenging is in the case of what is known as an unattended death (or undiscovered death). An unattended death is one in which the remains of the deceased individual are not discovered for an extended period of time after the decedent died alone (or by homicide and the perpetrator intended for the remains to be obscured).

In some cases, not only days but weeks or even months can pass before a body is discovered. Because of the lapse in time, an autopsy and forensic testing may not be able to pinpoint the manner or cause of death.