Each investigator is required to take 20 hours of classes taught by forensic specialists. They take a competency test at the end of those classes. If they pass, they are appointed as official death investigators for three years.
Sometimes, however, death investigators cannot get all the answers to their questions. That's when the forensic pathologists get involved.
If a simple inspection of the scene or an external inspection of the body isn't sufficient, death investigators can draw fluids from the victim for toxicology tests at the chief medical examiner's office.
Autopsies are the last resort when questions about a person's death cannot be answered through any other means.
Kaplan's office investigates about a quarter of the 20,000 deaths in West Virginia each year. Around 1,500 involve autopsies.
If someone dies in a car crash, it is usually evident how he or she died. In those cases, medical examiners just run toxicology tests to make sure no drugs or alcohol were involved.
But remember the example of the old man who might have had a heart attack but was probably strangled to death? Death investigators would likely turn that case over to a forensic pathologist.
"It might be necessary to perform a more intensive inquiry," Kaplan said.
In addition to solving the mysteries of how and why people died, Kaplan also tries to use information gathered from all those accidents and murders to help other people live longer.
"We pull together a relatively complete picture of why that person died," he said. "Wouldn't it be nice to use that information to prevent other people from meeting a similar fate?"
That's exactly what the chief medical examiner's office is doing.
Trish McCay is coordinator of the West Virginia Child Fatality Review Team and the Coalition for Prevention of Domestic Violence.
The review boards are made up of representatives from Child Protective Services, county prosecutors, police departments, and the state Fire Marshal's Office, among others. Members meet once a month and review between 15 and 20 "preventable" child deaths - home accidents, car accidents, murders, suicide - and domestic violence deaths.
McCay said she considers the reviews a "social autopsy." Like any autopsy, the meetings are closed to the public so board members can delve deep into the circumstances surrounding the deaths.
"When you bring all these different inputs into a room in a confidential manner . . . you can share your triumphs and your mistakes about how your agency dealt with that person," she said.
Kaplan said the child fatality team's findings have "fundamentally changed" the way his office investigates infant and child deaths.
Death investigators used to consider Sudden Unexplained Infant Death Syndrome as a condition caused by an infant's vulnerability and environment.
They now look at the child's whole environment - the quality and constancy of caretaker behaviors, the appropriateness of environment, whether the child sleeps in a crib, and whether there were smokers or drug users in the home.
In 1997, the investigation sheet for an infant death was one page long. Now it's 17.
The board also reviews deaths of young adults. Most of those investigations involve car crashes, the No. 1 cause of death among teenagers. Legislators earlier this year used information collected by the child fatality team to pass a new texting-while-driving ban.
McCay said the work is often difficult, reviewing graphic descriptions and even photos of dead children and victims of domestic abuse. Board members don't get paid for their work, either, and some drive from all over the state just to participate in marathon meetings at the chief medical examiner's office.
"It's a hard thing to do," McCay said, "but you have to look at it like, 'we're going to prevent another untimely death.' "