Guide for bereaved family members

This guide answers common questions that bereaved relatives may have about the investigation of a family member's death.

Why is my relative's death being investigated?

When someone dies in Scotland, a death certificate is normally issued by a doctor and the person can then be buried or cremated.

COPFS investigates all sudden, suspicious and unexplained deaths. This includes the sudden, suspicious and unexplained deaths of children. This means that these deaths need to be reported to us, and a doctor cannot issue a death certificate without our agreement. When the death is reported by a doctor, we will discuss what happened with them. Our investigations usually find that the death was due to natural causes. Often, we can agree with the doctor that a death certificate can be issued and that nothing needs to be investigated.

Some deaths have to be reported to us by the police. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the death is suspicious or that something is wrong.

We must investigate any death where the death certificate can’t immediately be issued after we have spoken with the doctor. We may ask the police to carry out further investigations. Sometimes there might be suspicious circumstances. In these instances, we will tell the police to investigate and then we will decide if there should be a criminal prosecution.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having a significant impact on the investigation of deaths. See Coronavirus (COVID-19) information for more information.

Why have I been asked to go to the mortuary?

Relatives are sometimes asked to identify the deceased before a post mortem examination is carried out. This can be an upsetting experience, but it is a necessary part of the investigation of the death.

Post mortem examinations

Why is a post mortem examination happening?

Post mortem examinations are sometimes carried out during death investigations to help determine why someone died.

We know that it can be worrying when you hear that there is going to be a post mortem examination. We will always aim to respect your wishes and cultural and religious traditions as far as it is possible to do so.

If you do have concerns, you should speak with the doctor or police who informed you of your relative's death investigation.

I have been told that samples or organs have been removed – why is this necessary?

In a very small number of cases, it is necessary to remove an organ so a more detailed examination can take place.

We will contact family members in these cases to explain why this has happened. If an organ has been retained, we'll ask you to decide how you want the organ to be treated when the tests are completed.

My relative wanted their organs donated – will this be possible?

We will make every effort to respect your family member's wishes about organ donation. In some situations this may not be possible.

When can the funeral take place?

The funeral can take place after a cause of death has been determined and the death certificate has been issued. In some cases, an interim death certificate will be issued to allow the funeral to take place while further tests are being done.

When will I know the cause of death?

The cause of death is recorded on the death certificate issued by a doctor or pathologist.

Your funeral director can advise you how death certificates are issued to nearest relatives in your local area.

If there has been a post mortem examination and further tests are being carried out, the cause of death recorded on the death certificate may change once the test results are available. We will let you know if this happens and a new death certificate will be provided.

In many cases, we will be able to tell you the final cause of death within 12 weeks. If further testing needs to be done it can take longer. Unfortunately, when a child has died, it can sometimes be up to a year before the pathologist is able to confirm the cause of death.

Can I receive a copy of the Final Post Mortem Report (FMPR)?

Yes, in most cases you can get a copy of the FMPR after it has been received and reviewed by a legal member of staff. In certain investigations, like those involving drug-related deaths, the FMPR cannot be shared until after the investigation is closed. The contents of the FPMR may be distressing for you to read. If you want, you can ask us to send a copy to your GP to discuss with them when you feel able to.

When can I get my relative’s belongings back?

If the belongings are not required as part of the investigation, they are returned when you request them. If the belongings are required as part of the investigation, these will be retained and released to you once the investigation is closed.

Do I need a solicitor?

You don’t need a solicitor to represent you during our investigation. You may want to speak to a solicitor if you are thinking about making a civil or insurance claim. That is a separate process and we cannot give you advice about that. If you are thinking about instructing a solicitor, we recommend you do so straight away and not wait until the end of our investigation. 

When will I get information about the investigation?

We will keep in touch with you during your relative's death investigation. We may offer to meet with you to provide you with information and updates about the investigation. We will ask you for your views before we make certain decisions. The Family Liaison Charter is our commitment to how we will communicate with bereaved families.

How long will the investigation take?

Every investigation is different and we may not be able to definitely tell you how long our investigation will last.

In many cases, once we have received the Final Post Mortem Report and considered it and all the other information, we are able to close our investigation after around 12 weeks.

Some investigations may be more complicated and we may need to wait for the outcome of separate investigations by other organisations or we may have to instruct independent expert witnesses to prepare a report for us. These investigations will take longer before we are able to finish them but we will keep you updated.

Pathology and toxicology service delays

COPFS relies on pathology and toxicology service providers to progress death investigations and in turn be able to receive final post mortem results and reports. When a death investigation involves analysis of samples that have been taken for toxicology analysis, the results of that analysis are essential to enable the pathologist to determine the final cause of death. Therefore, any delay to the toxicology analysis creates a consequential delay to the pathologist being able to certify the final cause of death and complete their report.

The post mortem toxicology service, which covers the majority of Scotland, transferred from Glasgow University to the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) on 1 December 2022 following substantial investment to improve the service provided to the public. As part of this, a new state-of-the-art laboratory was built. It is important that the complex scientific testing is robust and fit for purpose and there have been some delays in setting up new equipment which has resulted in delays in COPFS receiving final post mortem reports.

COPFS appreciates the anxiety this causes to bereaved families and seeks to provide an assurance that the situation is being closely monitored and that we are in constant communication with SPA to discuss and address the ongoing issues.

Update – September 2023

There continue to be delays in the Scottish Police Authority providing the results of toxicology examinations to Pathologists. This means it takes longer for the pathologist to finalise the Post Mortem report. As a result, please note that some final post-mortem reports may not be available within the 4 to 6 month timeframe initially indicated to families and instead could take up to 8 months.

Help and support for family members

  • Contact our Victim Information and Advice service if you have questions, concerns or need support.
  • View a list of bereavement support organisations for dedicated help and support after the death of a loved one.
  • Report the death of your loved one via the UK Government’s Tell Us Once service. When someone has died, there are lots of things that need to be done, at a time when you probably least feel like doing them. Tell Us Once is voluntary to use and very helpful. It enables you to report a death only once, telling central and local government services securely and confidentially without you having to inform them individually

For more information about the types of deaths we investigate, see Our role in investigating deaths.

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