Common questions and facts about autopsies
When a family finds out that someone they love is sick, it can be difficult. When a family is faced with the death of someone they love, it can be even more difficult. At this time, families are often upset, confused, and sometimes angry. Many families have questions about what has happened. One way to help understand about what has happened is to have an autopsy done. Many families do not know how an autopsy is performed and why it is important. This brochure should help provide information about the autopsy procedure and answer some common questions about autopsies.
What is an autopsy?
An autopsy is a medical procedure performed by a medical doctor who is specially trained in pathology—the study of disease. The doctor will examine the outside and inside of the body looking for diseases and/or injuries. To examine the inside of the body, a surgical incision is made on the chest, stomach, and back of the head. Small samples of the organs are taken and processed into microscopic slides so that the doctor can examine the tissues for cancer, infections, or other diseases. Other tests may also be done to study genes or check for drugs, chemicals, or other substances. After the autopsy is completed, the incisions are closed with stitches. The doctor then writes a report that becomes part of the patient’s medical record.
Why should an autopsy be done?
The autopsy is important to families because:
- it can help answer questions about the person’s death
- it can provide information about the illness and the cause of death
- it can provide comfort in knowing that everything medically possible was done to help the person
- it provides information about cancers, genetic diseases, or infections that could affect other family members
- it can provide information about work related diseases or injuries
- it can help to settle insurance claims
The autopsy is important to society because:
- it helps doctors learn more about diseases and treatments
- it can provide information to help other people who might have the same disease
- it can provide information about causes of injuries in car accidents, falls, and other situations to improve safety
- it can provide information so that research money can be given to study new diseases and treatments for diseases
Will the autopsy affect funeral plans?
No. The autopsy takes 2 to 4 hours to be done and is usually finished by the time a person from the funeral home comes to pick up your loved one, so there is usually no delay. It does not affect the viewing during the wake or funeral.
How do I get an autopsy done?
The doctor who took care of your loved one should ask if you would like an autopsy to be done. If the doctor does not talk to you about an autopsy, you can ask your doctor about it. The autopsy cannot be done without family permission except for special cases in which the Coroner or Medical Examiner may order that the autopsy be done. There are special laws that say which family member has to sign the consent form. Your doctor can talk with you about who can sign the consent form. The family can also make special requests to examine only certain parts of the body during the autopsy. This is called a limited autopsy.
Is there a charge for the autopsy?
If a person dies while in the hospital there is usually no charge to the family for the autopsy. You should ask your doctor if it is free or if you will have to pay for it. Autopsies are generally NOT covered by your health insurance policy. There may also be a small charge to get a copy of the final autopsy report from the hospital.
How do I find out the results of the autopsy?
The doctor who performs the autopsy will give some of the results to the doctor who took care of your loved one within a few days. The final results of the autopsy usually take about 1 month and will be sent to the patient’s doctor and to medical records to be filed in the patient chart. When the family agrees to have the autopsy done, they should also ask the doctor to schedule a future appointment to talk about the final autopsy results.
©2001 Elizabeth C. Burton, MD