What Does Mechanism of Death Mean? Clearing Up Confusion

Published June 1, 2021
Doctor noting death certificate

While the cause of someone's death might sound like it should have a simple answer, there're actually three separate conclusions that coroners have to determine during an autopsy. Cause of death is certainly the most well-known of these, with the manner of death coming in at a close second, but the mechanism of death is the third, lesser known, characteristic. Mechanisms of death are intimately intertwined with one's fatality, and having a thorough understanding of a deceased's departure is vital in having an accurate death certificate on file.

What Is the Mechanism of Death?

The mechanism of death defines the disruption that occurs to the body's natural processes which cause a person's death. In comparison, the cause of death describes the illness or injury that led to a death, while the manner of death is one of five statistical categories describing the way in which the death came about. All three of these distinctions are important for a coroner to determine as they're boxes which're included on many countries' death certificates.

Mechanisms of Death Explained

While the cause of death is definitely the easiest of the three categories to understand, the mechanism of death is assuredly the most difficult due to the way it's closely linked to the cause of death itself. Think of the mechanism of death as the most specific explanation of how someone died. Cause of death is a broader category, encompassing such things as car accidents and gunshot wounds, with the mechanism of death focusing on the minutia of the death itself.

Examples of Mechanisms of Death

Given its theoretical foundations, it can be difficult for the laymen to really envision what mechanisms of death are. Principally, mechanisms of death almost always relate to the brain, the heart, or both, and one of the most comprehensive collections of these mechanisms is explained in Spitz and Fisher's Medicolegal Investigation of Death. Using Spitz and Fisher's guide, here's a list of different types of mechanisms of death to help you better grasp the medical concept:

  • Seizures
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Electrocution
  • Exsanguination
  • Hypothermia
  • Hyperthermia
  • Anaphylactic shock
  • Thromboembolisms (cardiac and pulmonary)
  • Sepsis
Doctor holding portable computer with MR scan

Difficulties in Determining Mechanisms of Death

Unlike cause of death or manner of death, a mechanism of death isn't necessarily definitive; multiple mechanisms of death can be present in a single autopsy. For instance, Frank Smyth describes one of these scenarios in his 1980 work, Cause of Death: A History of Forensic Science. To summarize his example, a person planning to commit suicide by hanging swallowed a large dose of opiates to ensure he wouldn't feel any pain while dying should the rope not immediately break his neck. However, a gun he held aloft to use if his hanging didn't go swiftly enough went off, striking the rope, causing him to plunge fifty feet over the cliff and into the seas below. Yet, he survived the fall, and the salt water he inhaled made him vomit the lethal opiates.

So, while this lucky man survived a series of drastic events, he put into motion a plan where multiple mechanisms were acting within and outside of his body simultaneously. Any one of these tools or drugs could have killed him, or the combination of each of them could have finished him off. Thus, if he hadn't survived the fall, the coroner would find traces of opiates, gun residue, rope burn, and evidence of drowning, leading him to have to notate multiple mechanisms of death on the death certificate.

What Do Mechanisms of Death Mean for You?

Thankfully, given how complicated they can be, mechanisms of death aren't particularly important to the average person. If you live in the United States, there's a space on the death certificate for a coroner to fill out the deceased's mechanism of death, but it has no relevance on mortuary arrangements. Similarly, it's close ties to the cause of death can sometimes make it relevant for legal proceedings such as in homicide cases, but the average individual doesn't have to worry about what the mechanism of death turns out to be.

Death Certificates Are Full of Interesting Information

Unfortunately, most people only come into contact with death certificates when a loved one passes away. However, there's a whole host of interesting information to be found on death certificates, particularly historic ones. If you're interested in your genealogy, a cool way for you to put your sleuthing skills to work is finding a relative's death certificate and reading through it to see their cause, manner, and mechanism of death. You might unlock an unsolved family mystery or two along the way.

What Does Mechanism of Death Mean? Clearing Up Confusion