What is an 'unattended death'?

Cascade County Sheriff’s Office
Posted at 12:24 PM, May 15, 2024

GREAT FALLS — Occasionally, we get questions from people asking about law enforcement officers at a residence in Great Falls or the surrounding area. In many cases, the officers are investigating a crime, conducting a welfare check, interviewing witnesses, or gathering evidence.

However, in some cases, Sheriff's deputies are investigating what is referred to as an "unattended death." That means that someone was found dead, and there were no witnesses to the death.

Although some of those cases do involve criminal activity, most do not, and that is why the Cascade County Sheriff's Office has to investigate - to determine if there was anything criminal involved in the death.

Non-criminal deaths can be due to several factors, such as an accidental overdose of medicine, medical conditions (heart attack, stroke, etc), and suicide.

The website Aftermath explains: "The phrase unattended death refers to a death in which the body is not found for days, weeks, or in some cases, months. Unattended death happen most commonly with the elderly, especially if they reside alone and do not have family or friends that check on them regularly. In rarer cases, an unattended death may occur after a suicide or homicide."

The Sheriff/Coroner’s Office explained in a Facebook post that it investigates "all unattended deaths, suicides, homicides, accidental deaths, deaths which occur within 24 hours of admittance to a medical facility, and child deaths."

The coroner, based on the death investigation, determines the manner and cause of death utilizing the factors of circumstances surrounding the incident, medical history of the decedent, and laboratory/autopsy results in certain instances.

By law, the Sheriff or his designee (Deputy Coroners) must verify all deceased persons before the funeral home can proceed with a cremation.

If someone passes away due to natural causes and they are going to be cremated, the Coroner (Sheriff’s Office) must authorize the cremation. No cremation can take place until 24 hours has passed after the initial discovery of the death.

Sheriff Jesse Slaughter is the coroner for Cascade County and also has several deputy coroners who handle the day to day calls surrounding deceased persons.

Based on the state law mentioned above, they are required to work with funeral homes before a cremation takes place and once they authorize the cremation, the funeral home can then finalize the wishes of the deceased or their family.