Commonly Asked Questions About Autopsies (Postmortem Examinations)

What is an autopsy and when should one be conducted?

An autopsy is also called a postmortem examination. It is a surgical examination (cutting open) of the body after death. Sometimes, by doing an autopsy the cause of death can be more precisely determined. This may be important to other members of the family. It also might help doctors and nurses improve care to future patients. Talk with your family, clergy, doctor and nurse about this.

What is the procedure for getting an autopsy?

The next of kin or a legally responsible party can request an autopsy and must sign a consent form. Under certain circumstances a medical examiner (Coroner's Office) may perform an autopsy without the family's permission.

What is the procedure for an autopsy?

Specially trained physicians called pathologists perform the autopsy. They look at the outside part of the body and examine internal organs for clues as to the cause of death. Body tissue is examined by direct vision and under the microscope. The body is treated with dignity at all times during this procedure.

What is the cost of an autopsy?

Most autopsies are performed without charge because they help to advance medical science and help doctors and nurses improve medical care for future patients with similar problems. Private autopsies may be arranged by the family at a cost usually ranging from $800-$1,500.

Can the family request that the autopsy be limited to certain areas of the body only?

An autopsy can often be limited to certain body areas. For example, if your doctor or nurse believes that the cause of death came from within the chest, you may request that an autopsy be limited to the chest only.

Will an autopsy delay the funeral?

Autopsies are usually done during daytime hours within 24 hours of death. They normally do not delay a funeral.

When will the results of an autopsy be known?

Within two to three days the initial findings of an autopsy are usually available. The final report often takes two to three weeks to complete depending upon the number and complexity of tests ordered on the tissues. The appropriate doctor should review the autopsy results with the family.


American Academy of Family Physicians
The American Academy of Family Physicians provides a Q&A about autopsies.