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Autopsy Overview

An autopsy is a medical procedure involving the examination of a dead body. An autopsy is sometimes termed an obduction or a post-mortem examination. The word autopsy is derived from the Greek word autopsia, which means "to see with one's own eyes."

Autopsies are performed by pathologists, medical doctors who have received specialty training in the diagnosis of diseases by the examination of body fluids and tissues.

Autopsies are performed for a variety of reasons, including:

  • to determine the cause of death
  • to ascertain whether clinical diagnoses are correct
  • to evaluate the effectiveness of medical or surgical treatment
  • to gain information for the family about possible inherited or genetic conditions
  • for teaching and/or research purposes in academic hospitals
  • to aid in criminal investigations of wrongful death
  • to provide closure and reassurance for family members who may have questions about diagnoses or treatment

Forensic autopsies are a specialized form of autopsy with legal implications that are performed to determine if a given death was an accident, homicide, suicide, or a natural event.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/6/2014

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When Should You Order an Autopsy for A Loved One

Author: Benjamin C. Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM
Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

The tragedy of losing a loved one can be compounded by not knowing why they died. The uncertainty leaves people wondering how the death might have been prevented and often prevents closure to allow the grieving to end. This is especially true when a young person dies unexpectedly. Luke Killian was only 16 years old when he collapsed and died at a football practice. Derek Boogaard was an NHL hockey player who was found dead at his home at age 28. When the cause of death is uncertain, the medical examiner or coroner may order an autopsy be performed to help with the investigation. While autopsies are glamorized by television detective dramas, they are perhaps more useful when performed on people who haven't died from a crime.

The value of autopsies is well established. It helps the physician confirm diagnosis and can also help families understand how and why their relative died. The family can be reassured (or become upset) that the treatment provided was appropriate or not. It may also help predict whether any hereditary diseases might be present. For example, dementia is a common diagnosis but it is the result of an illness....

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