Information for family members

Dear Sir or Madam,
As you are probably reading this page after a death in the family or the death of a close friend, we would like to take this opportunity to express our sincere condolences and hope you can find the strength to come through this difficult time with support from each other.
Here are some answers to questions we are often asked in these circumstances. We hope this will give you a better idea about some of the processes involved at the Institute of Forensic Medicine.

Generally speaking, a deceased person is transferred to the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern at the request of the public prosecutor's office when a death is deemed to be unusual. This is always the case if the physician confirming the death cannot assume it is the result of natural causes and it proves impossible to come up with a satisfactory explanation following a subsequent legal inspection. The intention when transferring a person may therefore be to establish their identity and/or perform further investigations. These will tend to include postmortem tomography processes (computed tomography and possibly magnetic resonance tomography) and an autopsy. Other investigations are performed on a case-by-case basis (microscopy, microbiology investigations, toxicology investigations, molecular biology investigations).

Investigations are generally performed immediately after a body has been transferred to us, either on the same day or the next working day (depending on the time of day at the point of transfer). Providing the specific circumstances of the case do not require the deceased person to be kept at the institute for longer, the body is released within one to two working days. The body can then be claimed immediately by an undertaker and funeral arrangements can be made.

Working with deceased persons is very challenging from both a technical and an emotional perspective and the Institute of Forensic Medicine ensures everything is done with due reverence. This also means taking into account the needs of family members as far as possible. Our personnel responsible for preparing the bodies devote the necessary time, skill and sensitivity to ensuring deceased persons are released to family members in a suitably decent and far more presentable condition than before the investigation process. Our personnel involved in these preparatory tasks also perform outstanding work in cases where bodies have sustained severe injuries.

Investigations at the Institute of Forensic Medicine are generally performed at the request of the public prosecutor's office. This party effectively "owns" the information. As such, our reports are only ever forwarded to the public prosecutor's office as opposed to any third party. This means we are only allowed to provide you – as family members – with direct information if we have permission from the public prosecutor's office to do so. We appreciate your understanding in this regard. We do, however, understand that family members would also like to be informed of the results of investigations. There are basically two options in this respect. You can contact the public prosecutor's office responsible upon completion of the investigations and ask to view the relevant papers. The public prosecutor's office will then decide whether you can do this.
If you would like us to provide you with a better idea of the situation, via a face-to-face discussion for example, the public prosecutor's office responsible must give their consent (which we would try to obtain for you when possible). Call us about this, and we will put you in contact with the relevant physician.

Please contact the public prosecutor's office responsible with any questions of this nature.

In cases where it has not been possible to say good-bye to a deceased person before they were transferred to our institute – which, for a variety of reasons, is not uncommon – we recommend arranging an opportunity to say good-bye with the undertakers at their premises. It would also be possible in principle to say good-bye at the institute, although the premises at our institute are primarily tailored to the identification of bodies and do not provide a suitable setting for saying good-bye to someone.

If family members would like a cause of death to be clarified and a public prosecutor's office has not been involved or did not request any further investigations, we also perform examinations of deceased persons at the request of private individuals. Reports are sent directly to the party making the request in such cases. If you have any questions regarding this, please contact our duty physician (on +41 (0)31 631 84 11) during office hours or the on-call forensic pathologist via the cantonal police service outside of office hours. You can then ask for advice regarding how detailed any investigations need to be and what things might cost.