What is an autopsy, and why is it done?
is a medical exam of a body after death. It is done to find out how and why a
person died. A doctor (pathologist) who specializes in
examining body tissues and fluid usually performs an autopsy. What exactly is
done during an autopsy depends on the circumstances of the death and what
specific issues are being looked at.
An autopsy begins with a
careful exam of the outside of the body. This may include taking pictures of
the body, weighing the body, and noting any marks on the body. When examining
the inside of the body, the doctor may remove organs and take tissue samples.
He or she may look at these samples under a microscope and do tests to look for
disease, infection, or drugs in the body.
For more information
about how an autopsy is done, see the topic
Why might I want to have an autopsy done on my loved one?
You may think about having an autopsy done on your loved
- Your loved one died from a medical problem
that had not been diagnosed before death.
- You have questions about
an unexpected death.
- Your loved one died from a genetic disease or
problem, and you or other family members may be at risk for getting
- He or she died during a medical, dental, surgical, or obstetric
- The cause of death may affect legal matters.
- Your loved one died during an experimental treatment, and an
autopsy will help doctors learn more about that treatment.
- He or
she died from a disease or illness, and an autopsy will help doctors better
understand the disease process and how well the treatment
- An autopsy will help confirm or rule out a diagnosis made
What should I think about before I agree to an autopsy on my loved one?
Only you know your thoughts and feelings about an
autopsy. Here are some things to consider:
- An autopsy is not an accepted procedure for
some cultures, ethnic groups, and religions. Unless it is required by law, an
autopsy will not be done unless the family allows it.
- How important
is it to you and your family to have the information from an autopsy? Will
knowing the exact cause of your loved one's death help you, or will the process
cause you more grief?
- An autopsy may affect legal matters. If you
are unsure about this, you may want to get legal advice before agreeing to an
- You or your family may or may not have to pay for an
autopsy. Check with the hospital, nursing home, or doctor to see if there will
be a charge.
- If you request an autopsy, you can ask that the exam
be limited to certain parts of the body. But first you may want to talk to the
doctor who will do the exam. You can make sure that your request will not keep
the doctor from getting the information he or she needs to answer your
questions about your loved one's death.
- There are no risks to
having an autopsy. But it may reveal some things, such as habits and diseases,
that you didn't know about the person who died. For example, the doctor may
find cancer during an autopsy. Or an exam of the liver may show
cirrhosis, which can be caused by drinking too much
- In most cases, the cuts made during an autopsy will not
show after the body has been prepared for viewing. An autopsy will not prevent
you from having an open casket at your loved one's funeral.
If you need more information, see the topic
Autopsy, or talk to your loved one's doctor.