An autopsy is a thorough medical exam of a body after death. It may be done to learn about a disease or injury. Or it may be done to find out how or why a person has died.
An autopsy is done by a doctor called a pathologist. This type of doctor is an expert in examining body tissues and fluids.
Family members may ask for an autopsy to be done after a loved one has died. This is called a requested autopsy. Sometimes an autopsy is required by law. This is called a required autopsy.
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Why It Is Done
Deciding to have an autopsy can be hard for families who have just lost a loved one. Counselors or spiritual advisers who specialize in grief services may be able to help families through the process. Family members may ask for an autopsy:
- When the reason for the death may be an unknown medical problem.
- If there are questions about a sudden death that appears to be from natural causes.
- If there are concerns about genetic problems that family members may also be at risk for.
- When the death occurs without warning during a medical or dental procedure.
- When the cause of death could affect legal matters.
- When the death occurs during experimental treatment.
An autopsy may be required by law in deaths that may have medical and legal issues. They include deaths that:
- Are unexpected. This may include the sudden death of a healthy child or adult. Or it may be the death of a person who was not under the care of a doctor.
- Are a result of any injury. Examples include a fall, a car crash, a drug overdose, or poisoning.
- Are suspicious, such as a suicide or murder.
- Have happened under other conditions defined by law.
- May help health experts find and track a disease or possible public health hazard. (For example, they might look for signs of a contagious disease or one spread through food or water.)
How To Prepare
If an autopsy is required by law, the coroner or medical examiner can legally have it done without the consent of the person's family (next of kin). But if the autopsy is not required by law, the family must give their consent. Most often, a consent form must be signed in front of a witness.
Special permission will be needed if organ or tissue removal for donation purposes is requested.
If a family asks for an autopsy, the consent form most often describes the details of the autopsy. It should clearly state if organs and tissues will be saved or used for teaching. The family should make sure that they fully understand the details of the autopsy.
If the family requests an autopsy, they may ask that it be limited to certain parts of the body. Make sure that what you're requesting will allow the doctor doing the exam to answer your questions about the death.
How It Is Done
Before the autopsy
First, as much information as possible is gathered about the person who died and about the events that led to the death. This includes looking at medical records and talking with the person's doctors about known medical problems. Depending on how the person died, the police and the medical examiner's or coroner's office may be involved. They may talk to family members and study the area where the person died. They will learn as much as possible about the death.
During the autopsy
A doctor (pathologist) closely examines the entire body. In some cases, X-rays are done.
The doctor takes tissue samples from different parts of the body and looks at some of them under a microscope. Some samples are tested for drugs, infection, or genetic problems.
After the autopsy
In most cases, the cuts made during an autopsy will not show after the body has been prepared for viewing.
A written report describes the autopsy findings. This report may provide the cause of death. And it may help answer questions from the police and the person's doctor or family.
The doctor who cared for the person before the death often signs the death certificate. He or she may complete it before the results of a requested autopsy are known.
The pathologist, coroner, or medical examiner notes the cause and manner of death and then signs the death certificate.
How It Feels
Family members may have concerns and strong feelings about an autopsy. It can help to know that the autopsy is done with respect and care by a doctor. Its purpose is to look for disease or injury and to find out why or how a person has died.
There are no risks from the actual autopsy. But an autopsy may reveal troubling new information. For example, the doctor may find cancer during the autopsy. Or the results of a liver test may show cirrhosis from the overuse of alcohol.
An autopsy is a thorough medical exam of a body after death. It checks for disease or injury that may be present. Or it may be done to find out why or how a person has died.
The results of some tests from the autopsy may not be ready for several weeks. That's why a final written report may take weeks or even months. The doctor may talk to the family after the autopsy and then again after the final report is complete.
After doing the autopsy, the doctor will often state if the manner of death is natural or unnatural.
- A natural death means the death was caused by a disease or from the natural effects of old age.
- An unnatural death means the death was caused by something unexpected, unusual, or suspicious. Unnatural manners of death are homicide, suicide, accident, and "undetermined." These deaths are most often investigated by the medical examiner or coroner.
What Affects the Test
Several things can affect the autopsy and the results.
- It's best if an autopsy is done within several days of death. In some cases, such as an exam of a baby, prompt tissue sampling is important. But even after many days, an autopsy may still give useful information.
- Skills of the pathologist can make a difference. In complicated cases, the pathologist may need to consult experts with training in special areas. Families may wish to talk with their doctor for help in finding a pathologist.
- An autopsy is done based on who asks for it and what information they want. Samples may not be saved for special tests (such as genetic, toxicology, or paternity testing) unless they are requested before the autopsy.
What To Think About
- In some cases, CT scans and MRI tests may be an option instead of a traditional autopsy. This is called a virtual autopsy. This may be useful when religious beliefs prevent cutting into the body after death.
- A family can ask that a hospital do an autopsy on a person who died there. In some hospitals, there is no charge for this service. In some teaching hospitals, a person who died outside of the hospital (for example, at a nursing home or at home) may be autopsied at no charge. If an autopsy is required by law, there is no charge to the family. But make sure you understand the charges ahead of time. Many hospitals charge for autopsies. And most insurance does not pay for them.
Other Works Consulted
- Chernecky CC, Berger BJ (2013). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 6th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.
- Fischbach FT, Dunning MB III, eds. (2009). Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Current as of: December 9, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine