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An autopsy is a surgical procedure to examine the body and its internal organs after death.
An autopsy is not done after every death. An autopsy may be done at the request of the family or doctor. Reasons for autopsy include:
Autopsies may not be able to provide exact answers on cause of death.
Before an autopsy, there must be positive identification of the body. An autopsy permit must be signed by the legal next-of-kin. The body is transported to the morgue and held in a refrigeration unit until the autopsy.
Autopsies follow this general procedure:
The body is sewn back together after the autopsy is complete. Procedures vary regarding organ replacement. Dissected organs may be returned to the body or incinerated. If the organs are not returned to the body, the mortician will put filler in the body cavity to retain the body's shape.
Tissue samples may be sent to a lab for analysis. Results are available within a few weeks. A final autopsy report is usually completed in 30 to 60 days.
The autopsy typically takes 2-4 hours, depending on the reason and level of complexity.
Contact your local Medical Examiner's office on how to request an autopsy report.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Canadian Institutes of Health Research
Autopsy. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at:
http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/healthcare-management/end-of-life-issues/autopsy.html. Updated January 2012. Accessed November 19, 2012.
An introduction to autopsy technique. College of American Pathologists website. Available at:
http://www.cap.org/apps/cap.portal?_nfpb=true&cntvwrPtlt_actionOverride=%2Fportlets%2FcontentViewer%2Fshow&_windowLabel=cntvwrPtlt&cntvwrPtlt%7BactionForm.contentReference%7D=committees%2Fautopsy%2Fautopsy_index.html&_state=maximized&_pageLabel=cntvwr. Accessed November 19, 2012.
Last reviewed October 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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