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An autopsy is a medical procedure that consists of a thorough examination performed on a body after death, to evaluate disease or injury that may be present and to determine the cause and manner of a person's death.
An autopsy is performed by a doctor (pathologist) who has training and expertise in the examination of body tissues and fluids.
The decision about an autopsy occurs at a difficult time for most families since they have just lost a loved one. Counselors or spiritual advisors who specialize in bereavement services may be available to help families through the process. Family members may consider an autopsy:
An autopsy may be required in deaths that have medical and legal issues and that must be investigated by the medical examiner's or coroner's office, the governmental office that is responsible for investigating deaths that are important to the public's health and welfare. Deaths that must be reported to and investigated by the medical examiner's or coroner's office can vary by state and may include those that have occurred:
In some of these deaths, an autopsy may be required, and the coroner or medical examiner has the legal authority to order an autopsy without the consent of the deceased person's family (next of kin). If an autopsy is not required by law, it cannot be performed unless the deceased person's family gives permission.
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An autopsy is done to:
When an autopsy is not required by law, the deceased person's family must give permission before the autopsy is done. The laws governing who can give permission for an autopsy vary from state to state. Generally, a consent form must be signed in the presence of a designated witness. Some areas may allow witnessed phone consent instead.
Before the autopsy is done, as much information as possible is gathered about the person who died and the events that led to the death. This includes reviewing medical records and consulting with the person's doctors about previous medical problems. Other information may be gathered by interviewing family members, investigating the area where the person died, and studying the circumstances surrounding the death. Depending on the circumstances of the death, law enforcement and the medical examiner's or coroner's office may be involved in the investigation.
Procedures done during the autopsy may vary depending on the circumstances surrounding the death, whether the medical examiner or coroner is involved, and what specific issues are being evaluated during the autopsy. In some cases, family members agreeing to the autopsy may limit what can be done during the autopsy.
The autopsy begins with a careful examination of the external part of the body. Photographs may be taken of the entire body and of specific body parts. X-rays may be taken to evaluate skeletal or other abnormalities, confirm injuries, locate bullets or other objects, or to help establish identity. The body is weighed and measured. Clothing and valuables are identified and recorded. The location and description of identifying marks, such as scars, tattoos, birthmarks, and other significant findings (injuries, wounds, bruises, cuts), are recorded on a body diagram.
A complete internal examination includes removal of and dissection of the chest, abdominal, and pelvic organs and the brain. The examination of the trunk requires an incision from the chest to the abdomen. The removal of the brain requires an incision over the top of the head. The body organs are examined before removal, then removed and examined in detail. Sometimes only a partial autopsy in one specific area of the body is needed. In this case, only the organs and tissues of interest are removed and examined.
In some cases, organs may be placed in a preservative called formalin for days to weeks prior to dissection. This is particularly important in the examination of the brain for certain types of diseases or injuries. Tissue samples are taken from some or all of the organs for examination under a microscope. Samples of blood, organs, and body fluids may be removed and preserved to test for drugs or infection or to evaluate chemical composition or genetics. Samples may include blood from the heart or blood vessels, vitreous gel from the eyes, bile from the gallbladder, contents of the stomach, urine, and tissues from organs, such as the liver.
Completion of the autopsy may require examination of tissues under a microscope, further investigation of the circumstances of death, or specialized tests (such as genetic or toxicology tests). The tests performed may vary based on the findings at the autopsy dissection, the circumstances of death, the questions asked about the death, and the condition of the tissues and body fluids obtained at autopsy. Toxicology testing is not generally performed in every autopsy, particularly those not required by law. Genetic testing is not often done unless the family has been consulted. A written report describes the autopsy findings. This report may address the cause of death and may help answer any questions from the deceased person's doctor and family.
If the autopsy was required by law, after the autopsy is completed, the pathologist, coroner, or medical examiner completes and signs the cause and manner of death on the death certificate. If the autopsy was not required by law, the doctor caring for the person prior to death often signs the death certificate and may complete it before the results of a family-requested autopsy are known.
Family members may have concerns and strong emotions about an autopsy being done on a loved one. It is important that the family understand that the autopsy is a medical procedure performed respectfully and carefully, to objectively evaluate disease or injury that may be present and to determine the cause and manner of the loved one's death.
There are no risks from the actual autopsy. But an autopsy may uncover the effects of habits or diseases that people close to the deceased person did not know about. For example, the pathologist may find cancer during the autopsy, or results of a liver test may show cirrhosis, which can occur from the overuse of alcohol.
An autopsy is a medical procedure that consists of a thorough examination performed on a body after death, to evaluate disease or injury that may be present and to determine the cause and manner of a person's death. Following the autopsy, it may take several weeks for the results of specialized tests to be completed. For this reason, a final written autopsy report may take weeks or even months. The pathologist or deceased person's doctor may speak directly to the family after the dissection portion of the autopsy and again after the final autopsy report is complete.
After performing the autopsy, the pathologist will often make a statement about the cause and manner of death. Manner of death is defined as natural or unnatural.
A natural death means the death occurred as a result of a disease or from the natural effects of old age.
Some examples of natural causes include:
An unnatural death means the death resulted from an unexpected, unusual, or suspicious cause. If an injury caused or contributed to the death, the manner of death is called unnatural. Unnatural manners of death are homicide, suicide, accident, and undetermined. Unnatural deaths generally are investigated under authority of the medical examiner or coroner, and the determination of the manner of death requires a detailed investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death. Some unnatural causes of death include:
Several things can interfere with the autopsy and the results.
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.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine|
|Last Revised||April 18, 2013|
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