Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2000;62(7):1686

What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is an exam of the body after a person has died. The purpose of an autopsy is to answer any questions about the person's illness or the cause of death. In addition, autopsies provide valuable information that helps doctors save the lives of others.

Who can request an autopsy?

You can request an autopsy if you're the next of kin or legally responsible for the dead person. Your doctor will ask you to sign a consent form to give permission for the autopsy. You may limit the autopsy in any manner you wish. If the cause of death is unclear, the coroner may perform an autopsy without the family's permission.

What is the procedure for an autopsy?

A specially trained doctor, called a pathologist, performs the autopsy. First, the pathologist looks at the body for clues about the cause of death. Next, the pathologist examines the internal organs, taking samples as needed to look at under a microscope. The autopsy takes from two to four hours in a room that looks like an operating room. An atmosphere of dignity and respect is maintained at all times.

How much does an autopsy cost?

Because autopsies help doctors learn more about illness and ways to improve medical care, autopsies are usually performed without charge.

Will an autopsy interfere with funeral arrangements?

No. Pathologists perform autopsies in a way that doesn't interfere with burial or cremation. Once the autopsy is completed, the hospital lets the funeral home know. An autopsy won't delay funeral services.

When will the results of an autopsy be known?

The first findings from an autopsy are usually ready in two to three days. A final report may take many weeks because of the detailed studies performed on tissue samples. Your doctor can review these results with the next of kin or legal guardian.

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