Polk County Medical Examiner

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are your business hours?

    The Polk County Medical Examiner administration is open 8 am to 4:30 pm Monday through Friday, excluding County and Federal Holidays. Free parking is available. Our address is 1801 Hickman Road, Des Moines, IA 50314.

  • Do I make complaints to your office about a doctor I am having trouble with?

    No. The Iowa Board of Medicine is responsible for complaints regarding physicians. Please visit their website at: http://www.medicalboard.iowa.gov If you have a complaint about our staff please feel free to contact us at 515-286-2102.

  • What types of death does the Polk County Medical Examiner investigate?

    Our office investigates all deaths falling under Iowa Code 331.802 and Iowa Administrative Code 641-127.1 We only have jurisdiction on deaths occurring within Polk County. If the death occurred elsewhere in Iowa, please contact the Iowa State Medical Examiner at 515-725-1400.

  • What is an autopsy?

    An autopsy is a dignified surgical procedure, which provides a systematic examination of the body of a deceased person by a qualified physician. The body is inspected for the presence of disease or injury, and minimal specimens of the vital organs and/or body fluids may be taken for toxicological and other analysis. The internal organs and the brain will be examined, then replaced in the body for burial.

  • When will an autopsy be necessary?

    In about one fifth of the cases investigated by the Medical Investigator an autopsy will be required. The primary concern is to determine whether death resulted from disease, from injury, or from a combination of disease and injury. When death results from physical injuries, the autopsy frequently provides a means to reconstruct the fatal episode. The autopsy also serves to provide information in the case of unidentified persons. To see a list of reportable cases please see: What is a Medical Examiner’s Case.

  • Does the family pay for any Medical Examiner services?

    For cases that fall under Polk County Medical Examiner (PCME) jurisdiction please see: What is a Medical Examiner’s Case. Families pay nothing for Medical Examiner services or for the transportation to the morgue for autopsy. Families may be billed by the funeral home for the transportation to the funeral home they select.

  • How long does an autopsy take?

    A standard forensic autopsy will take two to three hours. Complicated medical cases or cases of traumatic deaths with multiple injuries can take longer in order to fully document all observations.

  • What if objections to the autopsies are raised?

    When family members object to an autopsy based upon religious, cultural or other beliefs, every effort to honor that objection will be made. However, if the public responsibility cannot be fulfilled without performing the autopsy, the family will be provided an opportunity to be represented by legal counsel and to have their objection presented to a judge before the autopsy is performed, whenever possible.

  • Are tests for drugs and alcohol performed?

    In all cases investigated by the Medical Examiner, including those where autopsies are not conducted, fluids may be taken for toxicological tests. The results of the tests are often important factors in being able to determine a cause and manner of the death, and in providing motives and explanation far behaviors. Not all cases will receive toxicological testing, especially if such testing will not influence the cause or manner of death.

  • Can a medical examiner case still be an organ or tissue donor?

    Yes. Once family members have expressed interest, the Iowa Donor Network and Iowa Lions Eye Bank coordinators work closely with the Medical Examiner, and will review the appropriateness of the organ recovery with the Medical Examiner before allowing family members to formally consent to the donation. Procedures to obtain organs and tissues are done within hospital operating rooms, and not at the Medical Examiner’s office.

  • What if no one claims the body?

    The law provides for burial or cremation when no relative claims the body. These matters are handled through the county finance office.

  • When will the body be released?

    Once the examination is complete, and a family has designated an arrangement for burial or cremation, the body will be released to a mortuary or cremation service. Family members must instruct the funeral home to call the Office of the Medical Examiner for release of the body and should contact the Medical Examiner’s Office at 515-286-2102 to inform us of their selection of funeral home.

  • Can we view the body? Do I have to ID my loved one's body?

    No. The Medical Examiner building does not have facilities to view bodies. Please contact the funeral home if you wish to view the body. If identification is required, or if your loved one is missing please contact Administration at 515-286-2102 (or County Dispatch at 515-286-3333 outside normal business hours).

  • What happens to the clothing and personal items?

    All clothing and personal items held by the Medical Examiner will be released with the body to the funeral home or crematory, unless it is identified as evidence. Any item identified as evidence will be turned over to the investigating law enforcement agency. Government issued identifications such as driver’s licenses and social security cards will be returned to the issuing agency and will not be returned to the family. For questions regarding these items please contact the office at 515-286-2102.

  • Does the Medical Examiner ever keep parts of the body?

    In certain instances, the Medical Examiner may retain varying amounts of tissue including whole organs after the body has been released if the tissue is needed for diagnostic purposes. If the next of kin desires to have these tissues returned to the funeral home after such testing is completed, it will be necessary to contact our office to make this request.

  • What kinds of reports are produced?

    The Polk County Medical Examiner produces three reports: the autopsy report (or external examination report), the report of investigation (ME1), and the toxicology report Although the Medical Examiner signs the death certificate, the document is finalized and distributed through the Iowa State Vital Records Office. Reports can only be issued to the immediate next of kin and authorized government agencies.

    Note that our office will not release any records obtained from outside agencies such as law enforcement and medical caregivers.

  • How soon are reports available?

    The death certificate is available from the funeral home handling the arrangements as soon as the cause and manner of death has been established. The report of investigation (ME1) is a two or more page report that contains the information listed on the death certificate along with information about the circumstances of death. This report, along with the autopsy and toxicology reports, may take up to 12 weeks before being completed. However, every case is unique and it may take longer to complete the necessary reports. Reports are only available to the immediate next of kin. To request reports please contact our office.

  • Can I get information about the death of someone who is not a relative?

    No. The information in the investigation and autopsy reports are confidential under Iowa law (see IA Code 22.7.41) and are considered by our office to be medical records. Our office will not discuss the circumstances of a case with anyone other than the immediate next of kin or their designee.

  • Will the next of kin automatically receive copies of the reports?

    No. As we recognize that some families will not want to receive copies of the reports, it is necessary for the legal next of kin desiring this information to contact our office, request the report, and confirm their mailing address. The reports will then be sent upon completion of the case. Only one copy of the report will be sent without charge.

  • Who can get copies of the reports?

    Documents are provided to law enforcement, the district attorney, special government agencies, and the hospital providing treatment at the time of death. A copy of the autopsy report, report of findings, and toxicology reports will be provided at no cost to the immediate next of kin upon request. There is no charge to the family for one copy of the reports.

  • Can I designate someone else to receive the reports or speak to the office about a case?

    Yes. If you desire to do this, a letter signed by the legal next of kin must be received by our office indicating the person designated to receive the reports, along with their address.

  • Can I get copies of the photos of my deceased relative?

    No. This is prohibited by Iowa law.

  • Who can sign the death certificate on an ME case?

    Only the County Medical Examiner may sign the death certificate on a case involving a non-natural manner of death (see IA Code 144.28). The Medical Examiner may allow another physician to sign the death certificate in natural deaths.

  • What if the next of kin cannot afford the costs of the funeral?

    In such instances, application for indigent cremation may be made with Polk County by contacting the funeral home used for services. Sufficient proof of indigent status will be required.

  • How is the death certificate obtained?

    Upon determination of cause and manner of death, the death certificate is filed with the Polk County Recorder, Vital Records Office by the funeral home or crematory handling the arrangements. The certificate is then forwarded to the Iowa State Vital Records Department. If the cause and manner cannot be determined with only an investigation, an autopsy and possibly additional studies may be required. In such cases, our office does NOT routinely issue a "pending" death certificate, as the amendment of a pending DC may actually add further delay after the case is completed. In addition, a "pending" DC is not usually sufficient for settling the affairs of the deceased, such as insurance issues. However, if the family does desire a "pending" DC, please contact our office. Usually the funeral home or crematory will provide copies, however copies of the death certificates can be obtained by the next of kin for a non-refundable fee by contacting:

    Polk County Recorder
    Vital Records Department
    111 Court Ave., Room 245
    Des Moines, IA 50309

  • What is required for a cremation?

    The crematory is required to obtain a permit from the County Medical Examiner. If it is not an existing case, one of our investigators will respond to the crematory, examine the decedent, and contact the physician for cause and manner of death. If the physician is not available when called, a delay may occur until our investigators are able to contact them. Once the cause and manner are received, if further investigation is not required a cremation permit will be issued by our office.

  • What assistance is available to non-United States citizens?

    It is suggested that the family contact the appropriate Consulate of the country involved. The Mexican Consulate in Omaha, Nebraska is available at 402-595-1844 or on the internet at http://www.embassypages.com/missions/embassy14216/

    Other Consulates are listed on the US Department of State website at http://usembassy.state.gov.

Contact Us

To report a death call (515) 286-3333
1801 Hickman Rd
Des Moines, Iowa 50314
(515) 286-2102 (Days)
(515) 286-3333 (Other times)
Fax: (515) 286-2208