According to the Forensic Sciences Foundation, Inc.:
“Forensic pathology is the application of the principles of pathology, and of medicine in general, to the legal needs of society. Forensic pathologists perform autopsies to determine what caused a person’s death. They are also involved in the investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death. Knowing about these circumstances allows them to determine the manner of death — natural, accident, suicide, homicide, or undetermined.”
In the United States, each jurisdiction (i.e. county, city and/or state) generally has either a medical examiner or a coroner who determines whether an autopsy is warranted, such as in the event of a suspicious death, a violent homicide, the deceased seemed completely healthy before dying, or other reasons.
The roles of medical examiners and coroners share similarities (such as pronouncing death, positively identifying the deceased or documenting details of about the scene and the body at the scene) but there are also major distinctions. Medical examiners must be a licensed physician and often they are also trained as forensic pathologists meaning they can perform autopsies. Coroners do not necessarily need to be physicians, although a few states require them to be. Generally they are elected or appointed to the position.
Needless to say, to become a medical examiner or coroner, you have to pay your dues. Medical examiners have to go to through med school, the standard residency and perhaps an additional one-year residency in forensic pathology. This often equates to 12 or more years of training after high school. Coroners often have to work at lower level positions related to the field for some time as they gradually advance up the ladder. They are usually also required to take a specialized training course(s) in medical/forensic investigations.
If you are thinking you’d like to gain some professional experience with the goal of some day becoming a coroner or medical examiner, there are several careers you may pursue after completing a Bachelor’s degree in forensic science, biology or another physical/health science. These include forensic autopsy technician, pathologist assistant, coroner technician, forensic technician, photographer, transcriptionist…And if you are thinking of going to med school to become a medical examiner, but need a break from academics, you may like to work a year or two in one of these positions. (Note that certification, previous related experience through volunteering/internships or extra coursework may be required for some of these jobs, depending on jurisdiction and employer).