An autopsy, sometimes called a postmortem (after death) examination, is a thorough physical examination
of the body after death to determine the cause of death and the presence of
any other diseases. Autopsies are performed by physicians trained in pathology, the medical specialty that deals with the study
of disease through the evaluation of tissues and body fluids. Forensic autopsies, which are required to investigate deaths resulting
from violence or suspicious circumstances, are usually performed by a government
coroner or medical examiner. The June 4, 2003, issue of JAMA includes an article about uncovering missed or incorrect diagnoses
At the beginning of an autopsy, the exterior of the body is examined.
Notes and photographs may be taken to document any important findings. The
body may be x-rayed or scanned using magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI) to look for problems like fractures or tumors. The doctor
will then make incisions (cuts) in the body in order
to remove and examine the internal organs. In some cases, the brain may be
removed and examined. Small pieces of tissue may be collected for examination
under a microscope to determine if there is any disease. Body fluids may be
tested for the presence of any poisonous or harmful substances, a procedure
known as toxicology.
When the cause of death is unknown, or if foul play is suspected in
causing an individual's death, an autopsy may be required. Autopsies performed
for these legal reasons do not require the consent of the family. When performed
for medical reasons, autopsies require permission from family members or a
legal guardian. It is important to know that performance of an autopsy need
not affect timing of the funeral nor does it preclude an open casket. The
incisions made during an autopsy are not visible to family members who view
the body later.
Autopsies are the best way to determine the cause of death and can provide
valuable information on why a person died. Information gathered during an
autopsy can also help physicians better recognize disease in other patients.
Because of this, autopsies are regarded as an important educational resource
for doctors to learn about the most serious diseases—those that cause
American Society for Clinical Pathology800/621-4142http://www.ascp.org
College of American Pathologists800/323-4040http://www.cap.org
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Sources: College of American Pathologists, American
Society for Clinical Pathology
Parmet S, Lynm C, Glass RM. Autopsy. JAMA. 2003;289(21):2894. doi:10.1001/jama.289.21.2767