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Autopsy

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

Why It Is Done

An 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.
  • Collect samples of body fluids or tissues for possible genetic testing. This is generally done only after discussion with the deceased person's family.
  • Collect evidence and information in criminal cases.
  • 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).

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: April 18, 2013
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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