What's an Autopsy and Why Would I Want One?

What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is a medical examination of a dead body to find out how and why the person died, what disease or injury might be present, and if a particular medical or surgical treatment was effective. The word itself comes from the ancient Greek word autopsia, meaning "to see with one's own eyes." Autopsies are done by a specialized doctor called a pathologist, who's been trained to diagnose diseases by examining body fluids and tissues. Autopsies are performed for legal or medical purposes. A legal, or forensic, autopsy is performed when there is a question about the nature of the death; the purpose of a legal autopsy is to figure out if the death was a homicide, suicide, accident, natural death, or unknown death. A medical, clinical, or academic autopsy is performed to find the medical cause of death and is used in cases of unknown or uncertain death, or for research purposes. Before a medical autopsy can be performed, the deceased's next-of-kin must give their consent; the next-of-kin can limit the scope of the procedure; for example, they might exclude the brain or include only the abdomen. Legal autopsies don't need the consent of the deceased's family. Some people have personal, religious, or other reasons to want or not want an autopsy - this assumes the autopsy was "medical" and not legally required. Please use the radio button in MyDirectives selections and the text box to explain your thoughts on whether or not you want an autopsy. Remember, this doesn't have to be a "yes" or "no" answer. You may want to have an autopsy in some cases, but not in others. Keep in mind that, in some cases, an autopsy may be required by law.

Why would somone want an autopsy?

There are lots of benefits to having an autopsy. For families, it can help assure them that their loved one received proper medical treatment, and it may uncover genetic or environmental causes of disease that could affect other family members. For the medical community, autopsies can confirm the correctness of the diagnosis and the appropriateness of the medical treatment. Autopsies are also used to educate doctors, nurses, residents, and students. For society as a whole, autopsies help assess new treatments, evaluate new diagnostic tests, investigate environmental and occupational diseases, and establish valid mortality statistics. New diseases continue to appear that can only be fully investigated by autopsy.

What is a “forensic” autopsy?

A forensic autopsy is performed if the death seems suspicious or the cause of death is believed to be a criminal matter. In some jurisdictions, a forensic autopsy is also performed if the person who died wasn't under the care of a physician for a known medical condition, if the person was under medical care for less than 24 hours, or if the person died during an operation or other medical procedure. A specially trained doctor called a forensic pathologist performs a series of internal and external tests and examinations, which include weighing and measuring the internal organs, and checking for the presence of drugs, alcohol, and infectious diseases. It takes about two to four hours to complete a typical forensic autopsy, although it can take longer if special tests are required. The results of all tests must be in before the medical examiner can sign the death certificate and the body can be moved to the funeral home.

How much does an autopsy cost?

The cost of an autopsy varies depending on the town, city, state, or country where you live. It also depends on whether it is a legally required autopsy or one for purely medical purposes. Typically, an in-hospital autopsy is a free service, although some hospitals try to discourage you by telling you there are fees of $2,000 to $3,000. In the United States, you may be able to hire a private pathologist to perform an autopsy in the funeral home or other location; costs range between $500 and about $4,000 depending on how thorough an examination is done. Your funeral director can help you find a pathologist, or go online and Google "autopsy services."

How does having an autopsy affect organ donation?

Having an autopsy doesn't always prevent organ donation. Although laws differ in each jurisdiction, if the coroner or medical examiner is aware that the deceased wanted to be an organ donor, the medical examiner usually will try to perform an autopsy or an analysis of tissues and organs in a manner and within a time period that allows for organ donation.

How does having an autopsy affect having an open-casket wake?

Having an autopsy normally has no affect on an open-casket wake or funeral. Autopsy incisions are made so that they're hidden by the pillow in the casket even if the person is bald.

Can I change my mind about having an autopsy?

Yes, as with any other question in MyDirectives, you can change your mind about having an autopsy. If you change your mind, make sure you update your Universal Advance Digital Directive™. And remember, if you're the victim of a homicide or die suspiciously, an autopsy may be required by law.

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