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2017 Annual Meeting

September 12–14, 2017

Aurora, Colorado

The links below contained detailed information for the upcoming 2017 Safe States Alliance Annual Meeting, taking place September 12-14, 2017 in Aurora, Colorado.

Please note:

Who Speaks for the Dead? The Epidemiological Impact of Religious Objections to Autopsy

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 at 4:15 PM–5:30 PM MDT
Aurora Ballroom 1
Learning Objectives
  1. Understand the importance of accurate cause of death information as the fundamental health statistic and the importance of autopsies in assuring an accurate cause of death.
  2. One year after implementation, identify the impact the religious objection to autopsy legislation has had on death certificates and cause of death reporting.
  3. Recognize where religious objection to autopsies occur most frequently, and the importance of medical examiners and coroners in working with families to accommodate their requests while also fulfilling their responsibilities.
Statement of Purpose

Cause of death is the most fundamental health statistic, and autopsies assure an accurate cause of death is determined. Many people have religious beliefs that prohibit autopsies. In February 2015, this tension was highlighted after the death of an individual with traditional American Indian beliefs. The family did not want an autopsy, but the medical examiner believed an autopsy was necessary. By July 2015, Minnesota enacted a statute that allowed for a decedent’s representative to object to an autopsy based on religious beliefs. In January 2016, a check box was added to the death certificate to indicate whether a religious objection to an autopsy had been requested. The check box was added to better monitor the impact of the statute.


Death certificates with a religious objection to autopsy were analyzed and summarized by demographic information and cause and manner of death. Deaths with a religious objection to autopsy were compared with deaths where an autopsy was completed to determine the potential impact of the religious objection statute.


In 2016, there were 48 religious objections to autopsies, and a total of 4,015 autopsies done. Men accounted for 37 (77%) of the objections compared with 2,789 (69%) of total autopsies. The median age of individuals with an objection was 66 years, compared with a median age of 53 years for those with an autopsy complete. Despite the objection, autopsies were completed for 14 (29%) of the decedents. The cause and manner of deaths were similar for both groups. A greater percentage of non-white decedents indicated a religious objection to autopsy.

Conclusions & Significance to the Field

Although religious objections to autopsies have occurred, medical examiners and coroners have been able to obtain information regarding the manner, cause, and circumstances of the death. To date, this statute has had minimal impact on health statistics. Medical examiners and coroners understand the importance of the law and believe they can work with the law and families to accommodate their requests, while also fulfilling their responsibilities. Seven other states have similar laws; a survey is being administered to assess the impact of such laws.


Nate Wright, MPH, Minnesota Department of Health

Nate Wright works at the Minnesota Department of Health in the Injury and Violence Prevention Section as part of the Applied Epidemiology Fellowship Program administered by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) and funded through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). His work primarily focuses on suicide and drug overdose, but those topics encompass and overlap considerably with other related public health matters in which he participates.


Mr Jon Roesler, MS, Minnesota Department of Health

Primary Contact

Nate Wright, MPH, Minnesota Department of Health