• Autopsy


    An autopsy is a surgical procedure to examine the body and its internal organs after death.

    Reasons for Procedure

    An autopsy is not done after every death. An autopsy may be done at the request of the family or doctor. Reasons for autopsy include:
    • To answer questions about the health (prior to death) of the deceased
    • To determine the exact cause of death
    • To resolve legal or medical concerns

    Possible Complications

    Autopsies may not be able to provide exact answers on cause of death.

    What to Expect

    Prior to Procedure

    Before an autopsy, there must be positive identification of the body. An autopsy permit must be signed by the legal next-of-kin. The body is transported to the morgue and held in a refrigeration unit until the autopsy.

    Description of the Procedure

    Autopsies follow this general procedure:
    • External examination—The body is measured. Any abnormality of the body surface is recorded.
    • Opening the body:
      • A Y-shaped cut is made in the skin. It starts at the front of each shoulder and goes around the navel and down to the pubic bone. The skin, muscle, and soft tissues are separated from the chest wall.
      • Each side of the rib cage is cut with an electric saw to provide access to the heart and lungs.
      • The abdominal muscle is moved to expose the abdominal organs.
      Major Organs—Male
      Internal organs 3D
      Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.
    • Organ removal—Using special techniques, the organs are cut and removed from the body. All organs (heart, lungs, liver, intestines, stomach, pancreas, kidneys, spleen, and pelvic organs) and the major arteries are examined individually. They are weighed, washed, and dissected as necessary. Some tissue samples may be removed for further lab examination.
    • Brain removal—A deep cut is made into the scalp. The incision runs from behind one ear, over the crown of the head, to behind the other ear. Skin and soft tissues are peeled down across the face in the front to the nape of the neck in the back. An electric saw is used to cut through the skull. The brain is lifted and placed in a preserving solution for two weeks. This makes it firmer and easier to handle.
    The body is sewn back together after the autopsy is complete. Procedures vary regarding organ replacement. Dissected organs may be returned to the body or incinerated. If the organs are not returned to the body, the mortician will put filler in the body cavity to retain the body's shape.

    Immediately After Procedure

    Tissue samples may be sent to a lab for analysis. Results are available within a few weeks. A final autopsy report is usually completed in 30 to 60 days.

    How Long Will It Take?

    The autopsy typically takes 2-4 hours, depending on the reason and level of complexity.

    Getting Autopsy Results

    Contact your local Medical Examiner's office on how to request an autopsy report.


    Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality http://www.ahrq.gov

    Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians http://familydoctor.org


    Canadian Institutes of Health Research http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca

    Health Canada http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca


    Autopsy. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/healthcare-management/end-of-life-issues/autopsy.html. Updated January 2012. Accessed November 19, 2012.

    An introduction to autopsy technique. College of American Pathologists website. Available at: http://www.cap.org/apps/cap.portal?%5Fnfpb=true&cntvwrPtlt%5FactionOverride=%2Fportlets%2FcontentViewer%2Fshow&%5FwindowLabel=cntvwrPtlt&cntvwrPtlt%7BactionForm.contentReference%7D=committees%2Fautopsy%2Fautopsy%5Findex.html&%5Fstate=maximized&%5FpageLabel=cntvwr. Accessed November 19, 2012.

    Revision Information

  • LiveWell personal health survey

    How healthy are you really? Find out – free.Learn more

    It's time to stop guessing. If you want to make some changes but just aren't sure how, the free personal health survey from LiveWell is a great place to start.

  • HeartSHAPE Spotlight

    At risk for a heart attack? Learn more

    Fight heart disease and prevent heart attacks. HeartSHAPE® is a painless, non-invasive test that checks pictures of your heart for early-stage coronary disease.

  • Calories and Energy Needs

    Calorie NeedsLearn more

    How many calories do you need to eat each day to maintain your weight and fuel your physical activity? Enter a few of your stats into this calculator to find out.

  • Ideal Body Weight

    Ideal Body WeightLearn more

    Using body mass index as a reference, this calculator determines your ideal body weight range. All you need to do is enter your height.

  • Body Mass Index

    Body Mass IndexLearn more

    This tool considers your height and weight to assess your weight status.

  • Can we help answer your questions?

    Wellmont Nurse Connection is your resource for valuable health information any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Speak to a Nurse any time, day or night, at (423) 723-6877 or toll-free at 1-877-230-NURSE.