Bill seeks to change process for autopsies, death certificates

Devin Kelly

A bill moving through the Legislature seeks to make changes to Alaska's autopsy and death certificate process, new rules that legislators say would help to ease burdens on grieving families in rural Alaska.

SB 161/HB 301, sponsored by three Democratic lawmakers, would direct the State Medical Examiner's Office to use existing technology in rural health facilities to make preliminary decisions on whether remains need to be transported to the medical examiner's office in Anchorage for further examination. Such a change could lower stress for families, and save the state money, supporters of the bill say.

The bill would also allow copies of death certificates to be issued in the region of the death, if an Anchorage transport is not required, and for the medical examiner to obtain a burial transit permit when the office knows the remains will be taken to a rural region through a commercial air carrier.

In addition, the legislation aims to strengthen provisions allowing the medical examiner's office to transport remains to the family's home instead of the place of death, as long as the family pays the difference in cost.

If fisherman or hunter dies many miles from home, it makes little sense to return the body to the community closest to where the death occurred, said Democratic Rep. Bob Herron of Bethel, one of the co-sponsors of the bill.

"These are little improvements that will help the family in this tough situation," Herron said.

He added that the bill generally puts into law or backs up changes that were already underway, such as the recent revision of a form required for the state medical examiner's office to release remains.

The form, called the "Authorization for Release of Remains" or RAF form, once contained the clause that the medical examiner's office "strongly recommends the use of a funeral home (at the family's expense) for proper disposition of the body after an autopsy."

That line, and the way the form was structured, created confusion among some rural Alaska families who could not afford to pay for the fees and services of a funeral home, Herron said, and for whom the services provided by a funeral home went against cultural norms and expectations.

In early February, the medical examiner's office released a rewritten version of the form. It no longer explicitly recommends a funeral home, and now first gives the option of returning the remains to the family before providing a space to select a mortuary.

Outside of the legislation, Herron said officials are planning to study the use of telemedicine for preliminary determinations about whether the body needs to be sent to Anchorage, and also look to establish formal understandings between the state medical examiner's office and nonprofit organizations who can provide a "grief navigator" to assist families after a loss.

Reach Devin Kelly at or 257-4314.