Home > Patients & Visitors > Health Library > Autopsy
An autopsy is a thorough medical exam of a body after death. It may be done to learn about a disease or injury. Or it may be done to find out how or why a person has died.
An autopsy is done by a doctor called a pathologist. This type of doctor is an expert in examining body tissues and fluids.
Family members may ask for an autopsy to be done after a loved one has died. This is called a requested autopsy. Sometimes an autopsy is required by law. This is called a required autopsy.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Deciding to have an autopsy can be hard for families who have just lost a loved one. Counselors or spiritual advisers who specialize in grief services may be able to help families through the process. Family members may ask for an autopsy:
An autopsy may be required by law in deaths that may have medical and legal issues. They include deaths that:
If an autopsy is required by law, the coroner or medical examiner can legally have it done without the consent of the person's family (next of kin). But if the autopsy is not required by law, the family must give their consent. Most often, a consent form must be signed in front of a witness.
Special permission will be needed if organ or tissue removal for donation purposes is requested.
If a family asks for an autopsy, the consent form most often describes the details of the autopsy. It should clearly state if organs and tissues will be saved or used for teaching. The family should make sure that they fully understand the details of the autopsy.
If the family requests an autopsy, they may ask that it be limited to certain parts of the body. Make sure that what you're requesting will allow the doctor doing the exam to answer your questions about the death.
First, as much information as possible is gathered about the person who died and about the events that led to the death. This includes looking at medical records and talking with the person's doctors about known medical problems. Depending on how the person died, the police and the medical examiner's or coroner's office may be involved. They may talk to family members and study the area where the person died. They will learn as much as possible about the death.
A doctor (pathologist) closely examines the entire body. In some cases, X-rays are done.
The doctor takes tissue samples from different parts of the body and looks at some of them under a microscope. Some samples are tested for drugs, infection, or genetic problems.
In most cases, the cuts made during an autopsy will not show after the body has been prepared for viewing.
A written report describes the autopsy findings. This report may provide the cause of death. And it may help answer questions from the police and the person's doctor or family.
The doctor who cared for the person before the death often signs the death certificate. He or she may complete it before the results of a requested autopsy are known.
The pathologist, coroner, or medical examiner notes the cause and manner of death and then signs the death certificate.
Family members may have concerns and strong feelings about an autopsy. It can help to know that the autopsy is done with respect and care by a doctor. Its purpose is to look for disease or injury and to find out why or how a person has died.
There are no risks from the actual autopsy. But an autopsy may reveal troubling new information. For example, the doctor may find cancer during the autopsy. Or the results of a liver test may show cirrhosis from the overuse of alcohol.
An autopsy is a thorough medical exam of a body after death. It checks for disease or injury that may be present. Or it may be done to find out why or how a person has died.
The results of some tests from the autopsy may not be ready for several weeks. That's why a final written report may take weeks or even months. The doctor may talk to the family after the autopsy and then again after the final report is complete.
After doing the autopsy, the doctor will often state if the manner of death is natural or unnatural.
Several things can affect the autopsy and the results.
Other Works Consulted
Chernecky CC, Berger BJ (2013). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 6th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.
Fischbach FT, Dunning MB III, eds. (2009). Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Current as ofJune 25, 2018
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineMartin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
Current as of:
June 25, 2018
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2018 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.