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Autopsy

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 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.

The autopsy begins with a careful examination of the external part of the body. Photographs may be taken of the entire body and of specific body parts. X-rays may be taken to evaluate skeletal or other abnormalities, confirm injuries, locate bullets or other objects, or to help establish identity. The body is weighed and measured. Clothing and valuables are identified and recorded. The location and description of identifying marks, such as scars, tattoos, birthmarks, and other significant findings (injuries, wounds, bruises, cuts), are recorded on a body diagram.

A complete internal examination includes removal of and dissection of the chest, abdominal, and pelvic organs and the brain. The examination of the trunk requires an incision from the chest to the abdomen. The removal of the brain requires an incision over the top of the head. The body organs are examined before removal, then removed and examined in detail. Sometimes only a partial autopsy in one specific area of the body is needed. In this case, only the organs and tissues of interest are removed and examined.

In some cases, organs may be placed in a preservative called formalin for days to weeks prior to dissection. This is particularly important in the examination of the brain for certain types of diseases or injuries. Tissue samples are taken from some or all of the organs for examination under a microscope. Samples of blood, organs, and body fluids may be removed and preserved to test for drugs or infection or to evaluate chemical composition or genetics. Samples may include blood from the heart or blood vessels, vitreous gel from the eyes, bile from the gallbladder, contents of the stomach, urine, and tissues from organs, such as the liver.

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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