How It Is Done continued...
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 usually
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
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 examination of the liver may show
cirrhosis, which can occur from the overuse of
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 to 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 generally 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:
- Damage to the heart caused by heart disease, a
heart attack, or
- Damage to the brain caused by conditions such as tumors,
stroke, poorly controlled
- Damage to the lungs
caused by a blood clot, bleeding, or
- Damage to organs in the
abdomen, such as the stomach, spleen, liver, or kidneys.
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
- Death resulting from extreme heat or
- Poisoning or drug overdose.