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Understanding the autopsy process

Thanks to all of the forensics shows now available on television, many of us think we know what to expect from an autopsy. While these shows have certainly enlightened us, there is much more involved in an autopsy than what is portrayed on television. 

Why are autopsies performed?

When a death occurs, there may be several reasons for an autopsy. An autopsy will be performed if there is a possibility that the death may be a homicide, if the cause of death is not known, or sometimes if the death occurs in the hospital.

Some hospitals have a pathologist perform an autopsy as part of quality assurance. They will study the body in order to make sure the hospital did everything it could to prevent the death. In most states, an autopsy must be conducted if the person did not die in a hospital.

After a person dies, there are few people who can order that an autopsy be performed. In a suspected homicide, autopsies are mandatory by law. In other cases, it will be the next of kin who decides whether or not to allow an autopsy to be performed. Autopsies that occur in hospitals where the cause of death is unknown may be performed with or without permission. If this is a cause of concern, make sure to check your legal rights before the autopsy.

Different types of autopsies

In some cases, an autopsy may be external only. The cause of death may often be determined by a physical examination of the deceased. When there is no known cause of death, the pathologist will need to perform an internal autopsy. An internal autopsy involves examining all of the organs as well as taking blood and samples of post-mortem tissue. No cause of death is determined until the results of the blood and tissue samples are received. In some cases, this may take days or even weeks. This is often too long for a family to wait for the burial or cremation of a loved one.

Several religious faiths have beliefs that forbid autopsy and that burials must take place within a specified amount of time. In some cases, the pathologist will issue the death certificate and release the body to the family to allow for the burial or cremation to occur. In this case, the death certificate would state the cause of death as undetermined. The death certificate may be corrected later if a conclusive cause of death is found from the blood and tissue samples.

Will an autopsy affect the appearance of the body?

The post-mortem body bleeds very little during the autopsy process. The pathologist will be vigilant about preserving the body as much as possible. The pathologist understands that the body may need to be ready for viewing prior to the burial. When choosing the clothing for your deceased loved one to wear, consider choosing darker and thicker fabrics if an autopsy has been performed. This will ensure that the autopsy incisions are not visible.

When a loved one dies, it is a distressing thought that an autopsy needs to be performed. The peace of mind that comes from knowing the cause of death and having a complete death certificate provides some small amount of comfort. Before you can truly feel comfortable with the burial or cremation of a deceased loved one, it is good to know the reason why or how they died. Although grieving will always be present, this small comfort can mean a lot.

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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Practical matters following a death section helpful too.

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