Font Size


What is an Autopsy?

  • 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.

What are the regulations surrounding an autopsy?

In the U.S., an autopsy can be ordered by a coroner or medical examiner if there are suspicious circumstances surrounding the death. Autopsies may also be ordered, depending upon the jurisdiction, in special circumstances, for example, if a death occurs in a person not under medical treatment for a known condition, if a death occurs within 24 hours of admission to the hospital, or if death occurs during a surgical procedure.

If an autopsy is not ordered by the coroner or medical examiner, the relatives of the deceased must give consent for an autopsy to be performed. The relatives providing consent also have the right to limit the scope of the autopsy, which means that they specify the organs or areas of the body that may or may not be examined.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/20/2017

Must Read Articles Related to Autopsy

Carcinoid Lung Tumor
Carcinoid Lung Tumor Carcinoid lung tumors are an uncommon group of lung tumors. A carcinoid lung tumor can not be classified as learn more >>
Heart Attack
Heart Attack A heart attack is an interruption in blood flow to the heart muscle. Arterial plaque rupture is often the cause of a heart attack. Symptoms of a heart attack ma...learn more >>
Mad Cow Disease and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease
Mad Cow Disease and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Mad cow is an infectious disease in the brain of cattle. Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is the human form of mad cow disease. Symptoms and signs include musc...learn more >>

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....

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy »

Patients with epilepsy have a mortality rate 2-3 times that of the general population.

Read More on Medscape Reference »

Medical Dictionary