What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is a medical exam of a body after death.

Your healthcare provider will tell you who to contact if you want to donate your loved one's organs to science. They will also discuss with you the benefits and drawbacks of an autopsy and what the pathologist will be looking for. Ask about the cost of the autopsy. Some autopsies are done for free. But many hospitals charge for the procedure. If the law requires the autopsy, there is no charge.

Autopsies will not interfere with funeral arrangements. The procedure only takes a few hours. Once it's done the hospital will tell the funeral home. The mortician then embalms the body and gets it ready. The autopsy cuts (incisions) won't be visible. Open casket funerals can still be done.

Why is an autopsy done?

Autopsies may be done for several reasons, including:

  • When a suspicious or unexpected death occurs

  • When there's a public health concern, such as an outbreak with an undetermined cause

  • When no healthcare provider knows the deceased person well enough to state a cause of death and to sign the death certificate

  • When the provider, the family, or the legally responsible designee of the deceased person requests an autopsy

Who does the autopsy?

Autopsies ordered by the state can be done by a county coroner, who is not always a doctor. A medical examiner who does an autopsy is a doctor, often a pathologist. Clinical autopsies are always done by a pathologist.

How is an autopsy done?

Autopsy procedure begins with the general and ends with the specific:

  • First, a visual exam of the entire body is done. This includes the organs and internal structures.

  • Then microscopic, chemical, and microbiological exams may be made of the organs, fluids, and tissues.

  • All organs removed for exam are weighed. A part of each organ is preserved for processing into microscopic slides.

  • A final report is made after all lab tests are done.

  • Autopsies may last 2 to 4 hours. Early results may be ready in 2 to 3 days. But lab test results on samples of body fluids and tissues may take a few weeks.

  • A final written autopsy report will be done. You can ask your healthcare provider to review the report with you.

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