If a death has been caused by a road crash, life can seem like it’s suddenly been turned upside down. The death may have happened during the crash, or afterwards due to injuries.
Whatever your situation, a Support Worker is available to help and support you, and your family or whānau, for as long as you need it. You can call us 24/7 on 0800 842 846 (24/7) to be connected with a Support Worker.
Many people and agencies become involved after a sudden road death. This section explains the roles of the key people you may meet and some of the legal processes that must happen. They understand how distressing this time is and will work respectfully and with care.
A sudden road death will first be responded to by emergency services and/or a doctor. They will assist and secure the scene until police arrive. If the family and whānau are not present, police will advise them about what happened as soon as possible.
The police will investigate the cause of this road death
The law requires police to investigate the cause of every sudden unexplained death, on behalf of the coroner. This can take time. To investigate, they must ask questions and will speak to any witnesses and those who discovered the death. They may also choose to speak with close family, whānau, and friends of the person who died.
The police will remain at the scene until a forensic investigation takes place. They will take photos and gather evidence. Sometimes police might need to take personal items away, but these will be returned. The investigation can be upsetting, but they must do this. Note down the name and contact details of the officer you speak with in case you have questions later. Vehicles will be taken away for further police examination.
To formally confirm the identity of the person who has died, the police may ask you, or someone else who knew them well, to assist them.
If you’d like the support of a specialist Iwi, Pacific and Ethnic and Pacific Liaison Officer to listen to any cultural concerns you may have, ask the officer in charge of your case to contact one for you. To find a specialist Iwi, Pacific and Ethnic and Pacific Liaison Officer
If the road death involved a work vehicle, other agencies (such as WorkSafe New Zealand) or businesses may also begin an official investigation and inquiry into the circumstances of the road crash and death.
Go to WorkSafe New Zealand website.
When police visit a family, they will organise for a Victim Support Worker to come with them or will arrange for a Support Worker to be in touch as soon as possible.
We have highly trained Support Workers who have in-depth knowledge of the impact of a sudden road death on people, the services available, and the legal processes that can follow.
We offer support to immediate families and whānau, as well as witnesses and discoverers. Police can introduce you to a Support Worker or you can call us 24/7 on 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker.
Police may contact a duty funeral director to transfer the person who has died to the nearest hospital mortuary (unless they died in a hospital). There is no cost for this. The person’s body will be safely kept there until they are formally identified, and their cause of death is confirmed.
The hospital mortuary team work respectfully at all times and are led by pathologists, who are specially trained doctors.
While not always required after a road death, a local coroner may decide to order that a post-mortem is done, which is a physical examination of the person’s body. (See more about this below).
Before the post-mortem, close members of family and whānau can ask to view and spend time with the person’s body at the mortuary. All viewings must be authorised by the office of the duty coroner. This is because the body remains the responsibility of the coroner until it is released to the immediate family or whānau. You can ask your Support Worker to help you arrange a viewing through the duty coroner's office, or contact the office directly. (You can find your local office contact details here. )
Some hospitals have a family or whānau room for viewing, often with a screen or window between them and their loved one. The family won’t be able to touch the body or remove items from the body. For cultural or spiritual reasons, families can sometimes sit in a dedicated whānau room until the person’s body has been released to them.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to view the person’s body. This is usually when they’ve been very badly injured. If this happens, this will be explained to you.
If you wish, you could talk to a funeral director of your choice about any other options there are for sitting with or viewing the person’s body after it has been released from the mortuary, or about following any specific cultural traditions you need respected at this time. (See the box below Your chosen funeral director.)
If you and your family and whānau decide to view the body at any stage, it can help to know that the person’s body will look different – for example, their facial features and skin colour are likely to have changed. This is normal but can understandably be unsettling for some people.
A coroner may decide to order a post-mortem which is part of an inquiry into the death. (See more about the coroner’s role below). The coroner is like a judge and is a qualified lawyer appointed as a judicial officer to confirm the cause of all unexpected, violent, or suspicious deaths.
A post-mortem provides key evidence and is done by a pathologist, who is a specially trained doctor. They surgically examine the person’s body to find out exactly how they died. They will try to take into account any cultural needs and concerns the family or whānau may have. As this can be very distressing for families and whānau, delays in this process will be kept to a minimum.
You have the right to object to the post-mortem
There is one exception to this is and that is if it is suspected that the death may not have been by suicide and that it might have happened as a result of a crime. In this instance, a post-mortem cannot be objected to.
If you do want to object or make a cultural request, you must do this as soon as possible, within 24 hours. Tell the duty coroner’s office immediately by phoning 0800 266 800 and tell the police officer in charge of the investigation. The coroner will decide if they can grant your cultural request or not. If they cannot, they will explain why.
For more information on objecting to a post-mortem, see pages 6-8 of Ministry of Justice publication,When Someone Dies Suddenly, or call us on 0800 842 846 (24/7) to be connected with a Support Worker.
The immediate family and whānau can, if they wish, request to see a copy of the final post-mortem report. It can be disturbing to read and hard to understand, so it can be helpful to talk it through with your doctor. Ask your Support Worker how to arrange this or call the duty coroner’s office on 0800 266 800.
Police will inform a local coroner that someone has died unexpectedly. The coroner is like a judge. They are qualified lawyers appointed as judicial officers to lead the coronial process. This process looks at the causes and circumstances of someone's death and if there is anything that can be done to prevent deaths in similar circumstances.
The coroner may decide to order a post-mortem examination of the person’s body to discover exactly how they died, as described above. It is part of a coronial inquiry, which aims to find out who the person was, and where, when, and how they died. An inquiry can also assist them to find out what could be done to reduce the chances of future deaths in similar circumstances. Coroners don’t hold inquiries into all deaths reported to them. After a natural sudden death, for example, they may make a finding without opening an inquiry.
When the coroner holds a hearing as part of their inquiry, it can be done in one of two ways. If this hearing is done ‘on the papers’, it means the coroner decides on the cause of death by using all the paper evidence available, including the post-mortem report and the police report.
A hearing can also be held in the Coroner's Court, which allows the coroner to speak to witnesses in person. This type of hearing is called an inquest. It is usually open to the public and family, whānau and friends can attend if they wish.
A dedicated coronial case manager will help you and your family throughout the coronial process. (See below).
When the hearing is completed, the coroner will write a formal report, called the Coroner’s Findings, about the facts of the death. The immediate family can ask for a copy. This is a public report that anyone can read.
Up until a person’s body is released to the immediate family or whānau following a post-mortem, a staff member of the duty coroner’s office will keep you and your family or whānau informed about what is happening. After that, a dedicated coronial case manager will help you and your family or whānau through the coronial process. They will keep you updated about what’s happening and answer any questions you may have. They’ll let you know if an inquest will be held and when. They’ll give you their contact details so that you can get in touch at any time during the coronial process. It can be helpful to choose one family member to be the key contact person on behalf of the family.
When the person’s body has been released from the mortuary to the immediate family, you can decide together what you would like to happen next. You may wish for family or whānau to collect the person’s body, or you may choose to call a chosen funeral director to do this. (See below about the role of a funeral director).
The family’s chosen funeral director can do as little or as much as a family or whānau asks them to. Talk with your funeral director about what you would like, including any cultural or religious rituals you want honoured.
How a funeral director can help bereaved families or whānau
- Collecting the person’s body from the mortuary and caring for them at their funeral home until burial or cremation.
- Providing information about necessary legal requirements after a death.
- Registering the death and helping families and whānau get a copy of the death certificate.
- Preparing the body for viewing if a family and whānau wishes this and it is possible.
- Fulfilling the choices of the family and whānau for the funeral, tangihanga (tangi), or memorial event.
- Checking if the person’s legal will requested certain arrangements for the funeral or tangihanga.
- Organising cremation or burial procedures and ensure they meet necessary requirements.
- Helping families apply for financial assistance, if needed.
Ask them about costs, and payment options, so you can make choices that are manageable.
Finding a funeral director
Organising a burial or cremation without a funeral director
The Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua explains the legal and practical requirements you must follow here, if you prefer to arrange a burial or cremation without a funeral director. There are rules about where and how you can bury or cremate someone, and where you can scatter ashes.
We suggest you also see the next section “Practical matters specific to road fatalities” for further information to help you through this time.
Other useful websites and information
When Someone Dies Suddenly – A guide to coronial services in New Zealand
Brake - a NZ road injury and bereavement charity