Despite death being one of the most common reasons for discharge from a nursing home, fewer than 1% of nursing home resident deaths are autopsied. To evaluate our role as medical examiner in nursing home deaths, we conducted a retrospective review of all decedents in Jefferson County, Alabama, for the year 2001. Death certificate data indicate that 995 deaths occurred in nursing homes in Jefferson County in 2001. Of those 995 deaths, 119 (12%) were reported to the Jefferson County Coroner/Medical Examiner Office. Jurisdiction was accepted in 5 cases in which the circumstances already made clear that the death was a nonnatural event. In the remaining 96% of nursing home deaths reported to the medical examiner, the statements of the reporting person were taken to be true concerning the expected nature of the death. An independent scene evaluation was provided by a police officer or paramedic in 82% of the cases reported to the medical examiner's office. Elderly individuals, as a group, are expected to die, but the death of a particular elder may or may not be expected. In our jurisdiction, only 12% of all nursing home deaths are reported to our office, and only 4% of reported deaths are actively investigated. Actively investigating each nursing home death would overwhelm the resources currently available to our office. We advocate the study and development of criteria to aid in determining whether the death of an individual elder is sudden and unexpected.