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.
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
- When the reason for the death may be a medical condition that was not previously diagnosed.
- If there are questions about an unexpected
death that appears due to natural causes.
- If there are concerns about genetic
diseases or conditions that they also may be at risk for
- When the death occurs unexpectedly during medical,
dental, surgical, or obstetric procedures.
- When the cause of death
could affect legal matters.
- When the death occurs during experimental treatment.
For more information, see:
- Autopsy: Should I Have an Autopsy Done on My Loved One?
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
- Suddenly or unexpectedly, including the sudden
death of a child or adult, or the death of a person who was not under the care
of a doctor at the time of death.
- As a result of any type of injury, including a fall, motor
vehicle accident (MVA), drug overdose, or poisoning.
- Under suspicious circumstances, such as a
suicide or murder.
- Under other circumstances defined by law.
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
An autopsy is performed by a doctor
(pathologist) who has training and expertise in the
examination of body tissues and fluids.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
Autopsy: Should I Have an Autopsy Done on My Loved One?
Why It Is Done
autopsy is done to:
- Determine as precisely as possible what caused
the death. This can sometimes give family members information about
diseases or conditions that they also may be at risk for developing.
- Confirm or exclude a disease diagnosis made before death (such as
Alzheimer's disease). An autopsy also may be done to
help understand how a given disease progresses or to determine the
effectiveness of the treatment for that disease.
- Document the
presence of a disease that was undiagnosed before death.
samples of body fluids or tissues for possible genetic testing. This is
generally done only after discussion with the deceased person's
- Collect evidence and information in criminal
- Help health departments or other government agencies
identify and track a disease or potential public health hazard (such as a
suspected contagious disease or contaminated drinking water).