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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.

Personal autopsies

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:

  • 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 developing.
  • 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.
Autopsy: Should I Have an Autopsy Done on My Loved One?

Required autopsies

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:

  • 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 gives permission.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: September 09, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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