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What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is a medical exam of a body after death.

Why is an autopsy done?

Autopsies may be done for several reasons, including the following:

  • When a suspicious or unexpected death occurs

  • When there's a public health concern, such as an outbreak with an undetermined cause

  • When no doctor knows the deceased well enough to state a cause of death and to sign the death certificate

  • When the doctor, the family or legally responsible designee of the deceased person requests 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. Clinical autopsies are always done by 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 tests 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: Greco, Frank, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Karlin, Ronald, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2016
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