L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology founder who had not been seen publicly since 1980, died Friday at age 74, church officials announced Monday night. A coroner said today he is trying to establish that the body was Hubbard's.

Earl Cooley, chief counsel for the church, said Monday night that Hubbard died in his sleep of a stroke, on a ranch in San Luis Obispo.

George Whiting, the sheriff and coroner of San Luis Obispo County, said today in a telephone interview that the body was photographed and fingerprinted. He added that he is working with other government agencies to find a set of Hubbard's fingerprints for matching.

Whiting said county authorities had been barred from performing an autopsy by a "certificate of religious belief." A state law passed last year forbids autopsies if the deceased signed such a statement.

Whiting said the certificate presented to him stated that "I, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, declare . . . that based upon my religious beliefs I object to any and all post-mortem anatomical dissections . . . . " The certificate was dated eight days ago and witnessed by Patrick D. Broeker, Anne M. Broeker and Stephen J. Pfauth.

Cooley said Monday that the Broekers are Scientologists who were "close personal friends" of Hubbard and his companions in recent years. Cooley said the couple was with Hubbard when he died, along with his personal physician, Gene Denk of Los Angeles. Pfauth was not immediately identified.

Denk signed the death certificate, which attributed cause of death to "cerebral vascular accident." Cooley said Hubbard died at 8 p.m. Friday. Don Hines of the San Luis Obispo coroner's office said he was informed of the death at 7:30 a.m. Saturday.

The body was cremated, Whiting said. Cooley said in his announcement that the remains were scattered at sea Sunday or Monday.

Church officials said Hubbard's will left "a very generous provision" for his widow, Mary Sue, who was his third wife, and for "certain of his children." The remainder and bulk of the estate, estimated by Cooley to be "in the tens of millions," is to go to the church.

Cooley said that by leaving the bulk of his estate to the church, Hubbard had "confirmed his faith in the future of Scientology and its management."

One of Hubbard's sons, Ronald de Wolf, tried in 1983 to have his father declared dead or incapacitated. A judge in California's Riverside County ruled that Hubbard was alive and able to handle his affairs.

Michael Flynn, a Boston attorney representing de Wolf, said he thinks that the report of the death "warrants further scrutiny." Flynn said Hubbard had put "millions of dollars" of church funds into private Swiss bank accounts and had not reported the income to the Internal Revenue Service.

"Hubbard was about to be indicted by the Justice Department," Flynn said. "It was imminent, I mean, within the next few days . . . . the timing of this death is remarkable, especially since there is no body left to do an autopsy on."

Critics of Scientology have said Hubbard was in hiding to escape growing legal problems, including battles with the IRS and several civil lawsuits filed against the church and its founder by former members. Cooley said the legal actions had "passed from this earth with Mr. Hubbard's body. There is no cause of action left."

Hubbard's followers have contended that the reclusive science-fiction writer who invented "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health," was in seclusion to further his writing and spiritual research, not to avoid legal trouble.

San Luis Obispo is a sparsely populated coastal county 200 miles north of Los Angeles, and Cooley said Hubbard was there because "that was where he was surrounded by serenity, peace and calm."

Whiting said the ranch where Hubbard is said to have died is about 35 miles northeast of San Luis Obispo, "an area of rolling hill property, three to four acres with a home, stables, horses . . . . "

Asked why Hubbard's death was not announced until 9 p.m. Monday, Cooley said, "We were resolved that Scientologists would hear about it from the lips of their leaders before they heard about it from the press." Cooley said Scientologists nationwide were told of the death by a satellite hookup.