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Autopsy (cont.)

What is the autopsy procedure?

The procedure for performing an autopsy varies according to the extent and purpose of the examination. If there are no restrictions imposed by the family, most standard autopsies consist of an examination of the chest cavity, abdominal cavity, and the brain. To examine the organs in the chest and abdomen, the pathologist usually performs a Y- or U-shaped incision beginning at the shoulders that meets at the sternum (breast bone) and continues vertically down to the pubic bone. Examination of the brain is carried out through an incision made in the back of the skull from one ear to the other.

Before any incisions are made, the autopsy begins with a thorough physical examination of the outside of the body that includes determination of height and weight. Any scars, surgical incisions, wounds, or evidence of lesions on the skin are also described.

For examination purposes, the organs are usually removed from the body. The pathologist may weigh the organs individually and further dissect (cut) the tissue to look for abnormalities inside the organs. After the organs are viewed with the naked eye, small pieces of tissue are taken from the organs for microscopic examination. The physical and microscopic characteristics of each tissue are carefully described in detail.

At the end of an autopsy, the incisions made in the body are closed. The organs may be returned to the body or may be retained for teaching, research, or diagnostic purposes. Performance of an autopsy does not interfere with an open casket funeral service, as none of the incisions made are apparent after the body is prepared for burial.

What are the special procedures followed in an autopsy?

Pictures of findings at the autopsy may be taken for future reference. Photographic documentation is performed for many autopsies, particularly forensic autopsies for which the autopsy record may be important for a court case. In teaching hospitals, photographs of organs or tissues may be taken for research or instructional purposes. Organs may be preserved and stored in formalin for further examination, sampling for microscopy, presentation at conferences, or archiving for medical student training, depending on the particular situation and family consent.

Sometimes, the pathologist will order special laboratory studies to be carried out on tissue samples taken during an autopsy. These may include:

  • cultures or tests to identify infectious agents (bacteria, viruses, parasites, or fungi)
  • chemical analysis for metabolic abnormalities
  • genetic studies to identify disease-associated mutations or heritable diseases
  • toxicology studies to identify drugs, poisons, or exposures

Additionally, tissue may be frozen and stored for future diagnostic or research purposes.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/16/2016

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