The religious beliefs of a Muslim family outweighed public interest in deciding whether a full autopsy was needed to determine the cause of death of two Malaysian tourists, a coroner says.
Inquest findings into the deaths of Shafiee Bin Ahmad, a teacher, 51, and Miriyam Sakinah Binti Ahmad, a student, 21, both killed in a crash in December 2008, were issued by Rotorua coroner Wallace Bain.
The pair, who were unrelated, died of head injuries after Mr Ahmad, who was driving a van, failed to stop at the intersection of state highways 1 and 5 near Tirau and collided head-on with a truck.
The police investigation concluded the collision was caused by Mr Ahmad’s error of judgment by failing to stop at the intersection. The families of the deceased asked that no autopsies be carried out in respect of their religious beliefs and culture.
Autopsies were forbidden in Islamic culture because they required the body to be cut, Dr Bain said.
If an autopsy was legally required, all organs and body parts were returned to the family before burial.
Maori culture also considered autopsies abhorrent, he said.
As a result, only a limited external examination was conducted, and blood samples taken from Mr Ahmad, neither of which was objected to by relatives.
No autopsy was ordered by the coroner for Miss Ahmad.
“A post-mortem [in this case] would not disclose any further information that was not already available,” Dr Bain said in the report.
Coroners have the power under law to order either a full internal examination, or a limited external examination, to find the cause of death.
Under coroners’ guidelines, the balance of interest favoured an autopsy not taking place if the death was not sinister, or untoward, and there were strongly held religious, or cultural, views against an autopsy.
A higher court could uphold a coroner’s decision to order an autopsy, despite family objections, if there was significant evidence that death happened in suspicious circumstances.
There were also alternatives to a full autopsy available, including computer imaging, radiology and CT/MRI scanning, he said.
The purpose of the law was to minimise distress and offence to families because of ethnic origins, social attitudes or customs, and spiritual beliefs.
“In my view, significant weight has to be attached to these criteria in determining in each particular case whether or not it is absolutely necessary that an autopsy be performed.
“There is the power (under the act) to order an urgent post-mortem and the bodies must be released as soon as the coroner is satisfied it is no longer necessary to withhold it from family members.
“There is also the power to order a lesser post-mortem.
“That was ordered in this case for Shafiee Ahmad and this enabled the objectives of the law to be met and to recognise the cultural beliefs.”