What Is An Autopsy? An Easy-to-Understand Overview

Published May 7, 2021
Corpse in morgue

Unfortunately, many people's deaths are unexpected, leaving their loved ones to make a number of important decisions in a very short period, and one of these decisions is whether to have an autopsy completed. In some situations, the state will mandate an autopsy be performed, but often people reach out to privately licensed doctors to perform the procedure. As with many end-of-life services, there's a lot of confusion and mystery surrounding the autopsy process, but this helpful guide should answer all of your queries and conundrums.

What Is an Autopsy?

According to Your Dictionary, an autopsy is defined as an "examination of a dead body to determine how something or someone died." More specifically, autopsies--or post-mortem examinations as they're also called--are performed to determine both the cause of a person's death and the manner of that death. Yale's School of Medicine explains that "the cause of death is the medical reason explaining why a patient passed" and "the manner of death is the circumstances surrounding the death."

Reasons for an Autopsy

There's a number of different reasons to order an autopsy, some of which include:

  • Concerns for public safety - If there's a new strain of disease apparent in an area, a doctor might want to have a person autopsied to check for a potential contagion and to see how it affected the body.
  • Understanding unexpected death - Sudden death can prompt people to want to have an autopsy performed because it can provide them with answers and closure as to their loved one's passing.
  • Assisting criminal investigations - If a person is involved in a criminal investigation or legal situation, an autopsy will be conducted.
  • Fulfilling a request by a loved one - Autopsies are often requested by the next of kin or a loved one (depending on what is deemed legal per your state or country).

When Are Autopsies Legally Mandated?

Depending on your country's legal system, varying methods of death may be required to be investigated via autopsy per the local government. In the United States, the CDC has a useful chart illustrating each state's cause of deaths that warrant a legally mandated autopsy. In the case that the death of your loved one doesn't fall within one of these categories, you can still have an autopsy performed, but you must go through private channels.

How to Request an Autopsy

Besides legally mandated autopsies, individuals can make requests for the autopsy of one of their loved ones, but generally have to be the deceased's next-of-kin. In some states, if the spouse or parent is no longer around, the oldest sibling and eldest child can also make these requests. Since you're requesting a private, non-governmental service, you'll have to contact individual professionals to perform the autopsies. Here are some of the places you can contact:

Autopsy Costs

Unfortunately, private autopsies aren't covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or other insurances in the United States. This means that you have to pay for the full costs of the procedure on your own, and these can be upwards of $4,000-$5,000 depending on the person you choose. If you find a professional offering you a nominal rate, make sure you check their credentials to ensure they're not trying to scam you and will perform an excellent job.

What Happens During an Autopsy?

The actual autopsy process lasts about two to four hours and is best completed within 24 hours of the deceased's passing. Interestingly, autopsies can be performed on people who've already been embalmed, though they're not particularly effective at giving a full report of the conditions of someone's death. Complete results of an autopsy aren't fully reported until a few days to a few weeks after all the samples that have been sent to be analyzed have returned. Pull back the curtain on the autopsy process and see what coroners and pathologists do on a daily basis.

Types of Autopsy Methodology

Generally, there's three different types of autopsies that can be performed on the deceased. These are:

  • Complete autopsy - Pathologists or coroners conducting this type have unrestricted access to investigate all of the body cavities and the brain.
  • Limited autopsy - Pathologists or coroners conducting this type have unrestricted access to investigate all of the body cavities except the brain.
  • Restricted autopsy - Pathologists or coroners conducting this type have limited access to the body, normally restricted to a specific body cavity.

The Procedure

Take a look at John Hopkins report on the average steps taken during a complete autopsy:

  1. Visual examination - A visual examination is completed and recorded; this includes both external and internal structures.
  2. Medical specific examinations - Such exams as microscopic, chemical, and microbiological can be conducted on the tissues and organs of the body.
  3. Sample collection - Tissue samples and toxicological samples can be taken, and the organs removed and weighed before being disposed of.
  4. Data report - The coroner or pathologists' findings are compiled in a final report once all of the lab tests have been completed.

Autopsy Reports

Both professional institutions like medical examiners and hospitals and the next-of-kin can request to see an autopsy report. If you're conducting a private autopsy or are being asked for permission to have an autopsy performed on a loved one, you can assert your request to have a copy of the report sent to you once it's been completed, though you'll want to follow up if you haven't received yours within a few weeks.

What Do You Do With an Autopsy Report?

Autopsy reports hold a lot of important information about the nature of your loved one's death, but they don't equate a death certificate. Death certificates are signed at the point of death (or discovery) and aren't always signed off on by the coroner or pathologist that conducts the autopsy. Most people just keep the autopsy reports within their records and use them to navigate potential hereditary medical conditions should that have been a contributing (and unknown) factor in the person's death. However, these reports can also be used to contest a cause of death report on a death certificate, in a criminal case, or malpractice suit.

Autopsies Are Useful, but Not Vital

There's a common misconception that every deceased person has an autopsy performed on them, and this isn't the case. In fact, only about 8% of deaths in 2018 were investigated with an autopsy. Given that private autopsies are expensive, and the costs of end-of-life arrangements aren't cheap either, you want to make sure that you and your family are requesting an autopsy for a specific reason that justifies the costs.

What Is An Autopsy? An Easy-to-Understand Overview