What is the Purpose of an Autopsy?

AutopsyAn autopsy is a post-mortem examination of the body, both externally and internally, for purposes of diagnosing disease, injury, to determine cause of death, and is ideally done within 24 hours of death. Autopsies may include laboratory analysis of tissue, cell samples, and body fluids as well. Pathologists and forensic pathologists are the medical specialists trained to perform autopsies.

There are five legally acceptable manners of death; natural, accident, suicide, homicide, and undetermined. An autopsy may be the only way to determine this information.

When is an Autopsy Required?

An autopsy may be ordered by the coroner or medical examiner to determine the cause or manner of death, or to recover potential evidence such as a bullet or alcohol content in the blood. Policy varies across the United States but typically unwitnessed, tragic, or suspicious deaths require an autopsy. This is referred to as a forensic autopsy and what is most commonly portrayed on TV crime shows and movies.

The second type is called a clinical autopsy. Families may elect to have an autopsy performed to identify any diseases that may be inherited, thereby posing a potential risk for family members. Also, a family may authorize a hospital autopsy to determine the extent of a known disease to assess the effects of therapies that were being used to treat the disease. This would be beneficial from a medical research standpoint.

A typical autopsy creates two fairly extensive incisions on the body. The first being the chest cavity which is an incision that creates a “Y” from each shoulder and down the length of the abdomen. This gives the pathologist access to all the major organs of the body for extensive testing. The second is the cranial incision which is from ear to ear around the back of the head. This is of course is to gain entry to the brain of the individual for further study.

An autopsied body presents little difficulty to embalmers, as they are trained to handle this situation and it is a fairly common occurrence. The embalmer will make certain to suture all the incisions carefully; taking the time to make sure the body is embalmed and prepared properly for any type of viewing. The chest cavity incisions will of course be hidden by clothing but you may be wondering about the cranial sutures. Typically pathologists will consider this as they do their necessary work, and the incision will be low enough on the back of the head to be relatively hidden by the pillow or even the hair of the individual if it is long enough. If the autopsy sutures turn out to be visible, the embalmer will make sure the right cosmetics and restorative procedures are done in order to cover any noticeable suture.

The cause and manner of death may affect the viewing status of your loved one, tragic deaths often cause non-viewable bodies; however, an autopsy on its own should not cause you any concern as to the physical appearance of your loved one.

See related topics:

Interment Arrangements
Cremation
Preparation of Deceased
Embalming
DNA Sampling

Go to Funeral Guide — Index of Topics.