Coroners and their reports are nothing new. They were in practice in the 1600s as an English custom brought to the New World. Sometimes the sheriff held the position in conjunction with his usual duties. In the 1970s many large cities replaced the coroner with a medical examiner who was a physician. The coroner may have been a physician, but in many cases was not.
If an obituary for your ancestors indicates an unusual or tragic death, you should definitely look for a coroner's report. Death certificates will also provide this type of information as well as the signature of a coroner or medical examiner. The records of a coroner are public, but medical examiner records are normally available only to next of kin.
Coroner records are usually found in a variety of places. You should begin by looking at county court records. Check also with local funeral homes as to where they may be found. I have found some by inquiring at the county sheriff's office. Also don't forget to check with the historical societies in the area as well as the state historical society and/or archives. Other places you need to look include a coroner's office if there is one in the county you are researching. Also check at the county or city clerk's office or the office of a justice of the peace.
Some coroner records have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library (LDS). You can check for these at their on-line catalog at FamilySearch International. Once you have located the county and state, look under vital records.
These reports will contain more detailed information than you will find in obituaries or even the death certificates. Specifics are usually stated as to the height and weight of the deceased, cause of death in detail, and jury verdict. There may also be notations as to family members who supplied information or came to a morgue to secure belongings. Funeral home information will also be included. Some state laws require portions of a coroner's report to be destroyed and other portions retained. Even so, you will good information that will extend your research.
Details in the report guide you to more research, perhaps in hospital records, newspapers and court trials and prison records. You may also discover pathology and/or toxicology reports and police reports.
It is the duty of a coroner or medical examiner to investigate a death to determine if a criminal act was committed. Therefore, the evidence examined and the details of the report will vary. You may retrieve a one page report or several pages. If anyone in your family died young, you should keep in mind it may have been accidental or suspicious and you need to check coroner's records.
Use an Internet search engine to search for coroner's records. You may be surprised at what you will find. For example, the Missouri Digital Heritage at http://sos.mo.gov/achives/resources/coroners/ has a searchable Coroner's Inquest Database. Specific counties have indexes to coroner's records, such as Cook County Coroner's Inquest Records Index 1872-1911 at IL Cook County Coroner's Inquests 1872-1911.
Don't leave any stone unturned. Always look for clues that will extend your research. Ancestors are more than dates and places. They had lives, some of them interesting and some tragic.