Frequently asked Questions

Autopsies: When Are They Done?

When someone dies and it’s not clear why, a doctor usually conducts an exam of the body. That’s called an autopsy.  If you and your family are dealing with the sudden loss of a loved one, you may find comfort in getting answers at this difficult time. But you should also know that autopsies don’t always have to be done. If you do need one, it’s usually both a medical and a legal process.  You can ask for an autopsy if you have questions about how a family member died. And sometimes doctors will ask your permission to do one if they have questions.

Coroners and Medical Examiners-Who are they?

Every local government has an official who records deaths. He or she is called either a coroner or a medical examiner.  All but a handful of states require medical examiners to be doctors. Coroners may be doctors as well, but don’t have to be.  Coroners are usually elected officials. Many of them have no medical training. When an autopsy needs to be done, they rely on a medical examiner.

What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is a medical examination of the  body of a dead person. In the procedure, a doctor cuts open the body  and looks at the organs. He or she takes samples and looks at them under  a microscope. What the doctor finds can answer many questions.  Autopsies are done for several reasons:

**To answer questions about a person’s illness.

**To tell how and why the person died.

**For education and research.

**To assist in legal cases.

Specially trained doctors, called  pathologists, perform autopsies. Pathologists are experts in looking at  body tissues and fluids.

Who may request an autopsy?

You can request an autopsy if you are the  person’s next of kin or the legally responsible party. You will need to  sign a consent form to give permission for the autopsy.  Reasons you may  ask for an autopsy include:

**Doctors can’t tell you why the person died.

**The death occurred without warning during medical treatment.

**There could be genetic problems that other family members could be at risk for.

**The cause of death could have an impact on legal matters.

You may limit the autopsy in any manner you wish. For example, you can restrict it to a specific organ or area of the body.  A medical examiner can order an autopsy  without the family’s permission. This can happen if the cause of death  is accidental, homicidal, not a natural disease, or is  unclear or suspicious.

What is the procedure for an autopsy?

First, the pathologist looks at the outside  of the body. He or she looks for clues about the cause of death. Next,  they examine the internal organs. They cut a Y shape into the chest  and down the abdomen. They look and closely examine the organs. They take samples as  needed to look at under a microscope. They may remove the organs  completely to examine them.  They may also run toxicology or other lab  tests. These tests check for drugs or chemicals in the blood, urine or other body fluids.  When they are finished observing and testing, everything is  returned to the body. Then the body is sewn up.  Sometimes small samples of organs are  kept for further study.  The autopsy takes from 2 to 4 hours. The  autopsy room looks similar to an operating room. An atmosphere of  dignity and respect for the deceased is maintained at all times.

When will the results of an autopsy be known?

The first findings from an autopsy are  usually ready in 2 to 3 days. The doctor can review these results with  you. Detailed studies are then performed on tissue samples. This could  take up to many weeks. A final report will be written. The doctor will  also review this report with you, as well.

What else should I consider?

Some people are afraid an autopsy will  interfere with the funeral. This is not the case. The procedure can be  completed in just a few hours. Once the autopsy is completed, the funeral home is contacted.  So it does not delay funeral services.  In addition, the incisions are not visible once the body has been  embalmed and prepared by the mortician. So you can still have an open  casket funeral after an autopsy.


Files to Download or View

Below are several articles with general information on autopsies.

Autopsy Aiding the Living by Understand Death (pdf)


ASCP autopsy policy statement (pdf)


With an autopsy, you may still have an open casket funeral as all incisions are discreet, sutured, and virtually made unoticable by experienced funeral directors

Dr. Adame and Dr. Chen work with a team of experienced assistants and consultants

Toxicology and other laboratory studies are performed by independent reputable laboratories