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What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is a medical exam of a body after death. Autopsies are done to determine cause of death or to confirm a suspected diagnosis.

Why is an autopsy done?

Autopsies are done for several reasons, including the following:

  • When a suspicious death occurs

  • When there's a public health concern, such as a mysterious disease

  • If someone dies unattended by a doctor, or if the attending doctor is uncomfortable signing the death certificate

  • The family or legally responsible designee of the deceased person can ask the doctor or authorities for an autopsy

Who does the autopsy?

Autopsies ordered by the state can be done by a county coroner, who is not necessarily a doctor. A medical examiner who does an autopsy is a doctor, usually a pathologist.

How is an autopsy done?

Autopsy procedure begins with the general and ends with the specific:

  • First, a visual exam of the entire body is done, including the organs and internal structures.

  • Then, microscopic, chemical, and microbiological exams may be made of the organs, fluids, and tissues.

  • All organs removed for examination are weighed, and a section is preserved for processing into microscopic slides.

  • A final report is made after all lab results are complete.

  • Autopsies may last 2 to 4 hours. The results of lab tests on samples of body fluids and tissues may take a few weeks to be returned.

Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Sather, Rita, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/22/2014
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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