Autopsies - when and why are they necessary?

Autopsies - when and why are they necessary?

Autopsies, or post-mortems, can determine the exact cause or circumstances of a death. The word autopsy means 'to look for oneself.' An autopsy is a complete internal and external examination of a dead body.

When are autopsies necessary?

In the UK, most deaths do not require a post-mortem. An autopsy is performed when:

  • Death is sudden or suspicious. Or, due to murder or suicide
  • An accident, such as a fall, a car crash, or a burn, causes death
  • The diagnosis of the cause of death is unclear or the reason is unknown
  • A contagious disease following an operation or as the result of an injury results in the death
  • A death occurs in the workplace
  • A death occurs while the person is being held in custody
  • When a baby dies
Who can request an autopsy?

A coroner can request an autopsy in the event of an unexpected or violent death, or when the cause of death is unknown.

A hospital doctor can ask for an autopsy to discover more about the illness or conditions which caused the death. Or, to increase medical understanding and research.

Who performs the post-mortem?

A physician called a pathologist performs autopsies. He receives special training to help him to identify the effects of different diseases or occurrences on the body.

What can an autopsy reveal?

An autopsy can reveal the cause and time of death. Additionally, the pathologist can discover any co-existing conditions related to the death. Sometimes, autopsies can increase medical knowledge and they provide accurate statistics of causes of death. Also, they can provide evidence of exposure to hazardous materials or occupational hazards.

What happens during an autopsy?

First, the pathologist will thoroughly examine the body externally. Next, he makes an incision to allow him to examine the internal organs and tissues. He takes tiny samples for microscopic examination. These can reveal infections, malignancies, and other disorders. Genetic studies can discover the presence of toxic substances, chemicals, or drugs. Finally, the incision is carefully sutured, and the body is released for a normal cremation or burial. The body is treated with respect and an autopsy will not disfigure it.

Is an autopsy obligatory?

No, a landmark High Court ruling in 2015, requires Coroners to use blood tests or scans in some cases. Families of people whose religious beliefs, such as Jews and Muslims, require the body to remain intact can request this.