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Autopsy

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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).

How To Prepare

When an autopsy is not required by law, the deceased person's family must give permission before the autopsy is done. The laws governing who can give permission for an autopsy vary from state to state. Generally, a consent form must be signed in the presence of a designated witness. Some areas may allow witnessed phone consent instead.

How It Is Done

Before the autopsy

Before the autopsy is done, as much information as possible is gathered about the person who died and the events that led to the death. This includes reviewing medical records and consulting with the person's doctors about previous medical problems. Other information may be gathered by interviewing family members, investigating the area where the person died, and studying the circumstances surrounding the death. Depending on the circumstances of the death, law enforcement and the medical examiner's or coroner's office may be involved in the investigation.

Procedures done during the autopsy may vary depending on the circumstances surrounding the death, whether the medical examiner or coroner is involved, and what specific issues are being evaluated during the autopsy. In some cases, family members agreeing to the autopsy may limit what can be done during the autopsy.

During the autopsy

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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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