What is an Autopsy aka. Post Mortem?

Wondering what an autopsy (sometimes referred to as a ‘post mortem examination’) entails, and why it’s performed in the first place? Learn more below.
What is an Autopsy aka. Post Mortem?

Content warning: This guide contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

Sadly, some deaths are unexpected, or unexplained. In some circumstances, the state will request that an autopsy be performed. In others, families may choose to organise private autopsies.

An autopsy (sometimes called a post-mortem) refers to a type of medical procedure that is undergone after a person has died. It is an examination of a dead body to determine how a person died. They look at the cause of a person’s death, as well as the manner of the death. As for the difference? Yale’s School of Medicine explains it in this way: “The cause of death is the medical reason explaining why a patient passed” and “the manner of death is the circumstances surrounding the death”. Learn more below.

What is the main reason for performing an autopsy (or a post mortem)?

There are two main types of autopsies – one being forensic, and the other, clinical. (Other names for this in Australia include a coronial and a non-coronial post mortem examination). 

Coronial autopsies are performed when the cause of death is suspicious, violent or unknown and can assist with criminal investigations. Non-coronial (or clinical) autopsies are performed in a hospital, with consent from the next of kin. These may be requested by the family to understand a sudden, unexpected death, to potentially know about an undiagnosed hereditary disease, or may help pathologists understand more about a public health concern. For example, if there is a new strain of a contagious disease, the autopsy might provide clues as to how the disease affected the body.

Who orders and performs an autopsy?

Autopsies (or post mortem examinations) are ordered by the coroner. This is the procedure when the death is unexplained, suspicious, or due to an accident or suicide. The coroner may also order a post mortem if the death has occurred shortly after hospital admission or to a medical or surgical procedure.

Autopsies are performed by an Anatomical or Forensic Pathologist. 

What does an autopsy involve?

The person performing the autopsy will carefully examine the body externally and internally. This may require the extraction of tissue samples and bodily fluids, if necessary, which allows microscopic examinations of individual cells to be conducted. On some occasions, a whole organ may need to be removed for a brief period, however, families will be informed if this is the case (and why), so informed choices about the timing of the funeral can be made. 

What about religious or cultural beliefs and autopsies?

Some religions object to autopsies (or post mortem examinations) on grounds of religion or culture. For example, according to Judaism and Islam, bodily intrusion violates the sanctity of keeping the human body complete. However, while these (and other) religions do not favour autopsies, exceptions can be made in certain circumstances, and most religions will support an autopsy if it’s been legally mandated. If you’re unsure about where your religion or culture stands, you can speak to a religious or cultural authority or a cultural advisor who is familiar with the relevant laws.

What do you do with an autopsy report?

If you have chosen to conduct a private autopsy, or you have been asked for permission to have an autopsy performed on a loved one, you can ask for a copy of the report to be sent to you. The findings in the report can be used to navigate potential hereditary medical conditions (if that was a contributing factor to the death). Additionally, autopsy reports can be used to contest a cause of death report on a death certificate in a criminal case, or a malpractice suit. 

Wrap up 

Remember that in Australia, an autopsy cannot occur without written consent from the person (given when they are alive) or from their next of kin (given after the person has died). If you’re unfamiliar with where your religion or culture sits on the topic of autopsies, contact the relevant advisor or body for more information. Lastly, if you decide to order a private autopsy (or you have been asked to sign forms for a loved one’s autopsy), remember to ask for a copy to be mailed to yourself so you can refer to the report in the future if need be.

Remember that 24-hour Grief and Bereavement Support is always available. 

If you’re up to it, now could be an apt time to jot down your end-of-life wishes. When you are ready, you can jump online and write your legal Will or plan your funeral.

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