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Autopsy

How It Is Done continued...

Completion of the autopsy may require examination of tissues under a microscope, further investigation of the circumstances of death, or specialized tests (such as genetic or toxicology tests). The tests performed may vary based on the findings at the autopsy dissection, the circumstances of death, the questions asked about the death, and the condition of the tissues and body fluids obtained at autopsy. Toxicology testing is not generally performed in every autopsy, particularly those not required by law. Genetic testing is not often done unless the family has been consulted. A written report describes the autopsy findings. This report may address the cause of death and may help answer any questions from the deceased person's doctor and family.

If the autopsy was required by law, after the autopsy is completed, the pathologist, coroner, or medical examiner completes and signs the cause and manner of death on the death certificate. If the autopsy was not required by law, the doctor caring for the person prior to death often signs the death certificate and may complete it before the results of a family-requested autopsy are known.

How It Feels

Family members may have concerns and strong emotions about an autopsy being done on a loved one. It is important that the family understand that the autopsy is a medical procedure performed respectfully and carefully, to objectively evaluate disease or injury that may be present and to determine the cause and manner of the loved one's death.

Risks

There are no risks from the actual autopsy. But an autopsy may uncover the effects of habits or diseases that people close to the deceased person did not know about. For example, the pathologist may find cancer during the autopsy, or results of a liver test may show cirrhosis, which can occur from the overuse of alcohol.

Results

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. Following the autopsy, it may take several weeks for the results of specialized tests to be completed. For this reason, a final written autopsy report may take weeks or even months. The pathologist or deceased person's doctor may speak directly to the family after the dissection portion of the autopsy and again after the final autopsy report is complete.

After performing the autopsy, the pathologist will often make a statement about the cause and manner of death. Manner of death is defined as natural or unnatural. A natural death means the death occurred as a result of a disease or from the natural effects of old age. Some examples of natural causes include:

An unnatural death means the death resulted from an unexpected, unusual, or suspicious cause. If an injury caused or contributed to the death, the manner of death is called unnatural. Unnatural manners of death are homicide, suicide, accident, and undetermined. Unnatural deaths generally are investigated under authority of the medical examiner or coroner, and the determination of the manner of death requires a detailed investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death. Some unnatural causes of death include:

  • Bullet wounds.
  • An automobile accident or plane crash.
  • Fire, drowning, or electrocution.
  • Death resulting from extreme heat or cold.
  • Poisoning or drug overdose.

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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