Updated March 3, 2010
When a person dies, the family is bereaved,
often confused, and perhaps angry. One way of helping the family understand
what has happened to their loved one is by performing an autopsy. The
autopsy has the additional value of increasing medical knowledge, thus
benefiting families and humanity.
A complete autopsy is an external and
internal examination of the body after death using surgical techniques.
The examination is performed by a pathologist, a medical doctor who is
specially trained in this type of procedure and who is able to recognize
the effects of disease on the body. The procedure takes about two to four
hours to perform. This examination may be comprehensive or may be limited
to a particular organ system. For example, in the case of a suspected
heart attack, some physicians and families request that the autopsy be
limited to examination of the chest. However, limiting the scope of the
autopsy may reduce its value.
The autopsy room is regarded as a special
place for gathering medical knowledge. The body is treated with dignity
and respect, and the wishes of the family are maintained at all times.
Small samples of each organ are taken for microscopic examination to look
for disease such as malignancy or infection. Other tests that may be performed
include studying genes and checking for drugs, chemicals, or toxic substances.
When the examination is completed, a written report is issued. The final
report takes several weeks to prepare due to the detailed studies that
may be performed. The report becomes a permanent part of the patient’s
medical record. The findings may be discussed with the family physician
or with the pathologist.
The primary purpose of an autopsy is to answer any questions the family
or physician may have about the illness, cause of death, and/or any co-existing
conditions. Establishing a cause of death can be a source of comfort to
families. The autopsy may also determine whether there are inheritable
problems and help other family members through early diagnosis and treatment.
Furthermore, what is learned through an autopsy on one patient may help
save the lives of others with similar conditions.
In some cases, the law may mandate that an autopsy be performed. In
all other cases, permission is required. Permission to perform the autopsy
can be requested either by the patient’s physician or by the family.
In some cases, the patient may have indicated their wish for an autopsy
in discussions with the family or by signing a personal directive for
autopsy. The autopsy cannot be performed without consent of the legally
designated responsible party, usually the next of kin. When giving consent,
the family may make any restrictions, limitations, or special requests.
- Discovering inherited or familial diseases may help
families through early diagnosis and treatment, and in family planning.
- Discovering an infectious disease, for example tuberculosis,
may lead to early diagnosis and treatment to help other family members
and close contacts.
- Uncovering evidence of a work-related disease might
lead to compensation for the family.
- Providing crucial information for the settling of
insurance claims or death benefits may result in benefits for the family.
- Confirming a specific cause of death may simply
ease the stress of the unknown.
- Finding that diagnosis and treatment was appropriate
may be comforting to the family.
- Knowledge that information gained by the autopsy
may help someone else to live longer may ease the profound sense of
loss experienced by families.
Autopsies benefit communities by:
- Increasing knowledge about causes and course of
an illness and effects of different types of treatment.
- Disclosing evidence of environmental hazards.
- Explaining the causes of injuries and accidents
involving automobiles, falls, or other situations.
- Helping to establish the cause and manner of death,
which at times may be required by law.
Is there a charge for the autopsy?
The autopsy is important to providing an understanding of the quality
of patient care. It is also one of the most expensive procedures performed
in many hospitals. A number of hospitals, particularly teaching hospitals,
do not charge for autopsies on patients who died within the hospital.
However, there are institutions that do find it necessary to charge for
this service because of the labor, expertise, and cost involved. In some
cases, there is a charge for transportation of the body to and from an
Will the autopsy affect funeral arrangements?
The performance of an autopsy should not delay a funeral or affect
viewing of the body. Funeral directors and pathologists have been working
together for many years so that the final arrangements for the body can
Does the pathologist retain any organs?
The pathologist may retain some organs for more detailed examination,
research, or educational purposes. The length of time organs may be retained
is variable and related to the purpose of the retention. Retained organs
are disposed of in accordance with hospital policy. Families may require
that organs be released to the funeral home with the body by giving specific
instructions in the written autopsy consent form. However, doing so may
limit the value of the autopsy and is not recommended.
Are there religious conflicts?
People may worry that performance of an autopsy may conflict with
religious beliefs. Religious decisions are always personal. Families may
want to discuss the decision to have an autopsy performed with other family
members and religious or spiritual advisors.
Additional questions about the autopsy or organ and tissue donation
can be directed to your physician, nurse, or chaplain. They can arrange
for you to speak with the appropriate contact person in the pathology
We hope this brochure has been helpful
in answering some of the questions you may have about the autopsy. This
procedure has been known throughout history as a way of helping the family
understand what has happened to their loved one. It is a means of increasing
medical knowledge, which in turn benefits you, your family, and the community
To order the “Autopsy: Aiding the Living by Understanding Death” brochure, please visit the CAP Press and Publications.
© 2001-2008 College of American
Pathologists (CAP). Prepared by the CAP Autopsy Committee.