An autopsy is a surgical procedure to examine the body and its internal organs after death.
Reasons for Procedure
An autopsy is not done after every death. An autopsy may be performed at the request of the family or doctor. Reasons for autopsy include:
- To answer questions about the health (prior to death) of the deceased
- To determine the exact cause of death
- To resolve legal or medical concerns
What to Expect
Prior to Procedure
Before an autopsy, there must be positive identification of the body and an autopsy permit signed by the legal next-of-kin. The body is transported to the morgue and held in a refrigeration unit until the autopsy.
Description of the Procedure
Autopsies follow this general procedure:
- External examination—The body is measured, and any abnormality of the body surface is recorded.
Opening the body:
- A Y-shaped cut is made in the skin starting at the front of each shoulder, extending around the navel, and down to the pubic bone. The skin, muscle, and soft tissues are then separated from the chest wall.
- Each side of the rib cage is cut with an electric saw to provide access to the heart and lungs.
- The abdominal muscle is removed to expose the abdominal organs.
Major Organs—Male© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.
- Organ removal—Using special techniques, the organs are cut and removed from the body in one block. All organs (heart, lungs, liver, intestines, stomach, pancreas, kidneys, spleen, and pelvic organs) as well as the major arteries are individually examined. They are weighed, washed, and dissected as necessary. Some tissue samples may be removed for further lab examination.
- Brain removal—A deep cut is made into the scalp. The incision runs from behind one ear, over the crown of the head, to behind the other ear. Skin and soft tissues are peeled down across the face in the front, and down to the nape of the neck in the back. An electric saw is used to cut through the skull. The brain is lifted out and placed in a preserving solution for two weeks. This helps to preserve the brain, and makes it firmer and easier to handle.
Once the autopsy is complete, the body is sewn back together. Procedures vary regarding organ replacement; dissected organs may be returned to the body or incinerated. If the organs are not returned to the body, the mortician will put filler in the body cavity to retain the body's shape.
Immediately After Procedure
Tissue samples are sent to a lab for analysis. Results are available within a few weeks, and a final autopsy report is usually completed in 30 to 60 days.
How Long Will It Take?
The autopsy typically takes 2-4 hours, depending on the reason and level of complexity.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Canadian Institutes of Health Research
Uthman, E. American Board of Pathology website. Available at: http://www.abpath.org/default.aspx.
Last reviewed November 2009 by
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