What is an Autopsy?

AutopsyThe word, “autopsy,” is derived from a Greek word autopsia meaning ‘see for yourself.’ In most cases, however, a specially-trained physician or pathologist conducts the viewing. The objective behind an autopsy, also known as a postmortem examination, necropsy, or obduction, is to examine a corpse to determine a cause of death or to evaluate any disease or injury that was present at the time of death.

Even if an autopsy isn’t required by law, families may be grateful for the many advantages that an autopsy can provide. Through an autopsy, a family can learn about diseases or ailments that were or weren’t apparent during a deceased individual’s lifetime.  This information can help the family discover any genetic diseases that may shorten another family member’s life. The thorough examination of body tissues after death also can provide the medical community with information about various diseases, even if they weren’t the cause of death.

According to MidWest Autopsy, at least a fifth of autopsies reveal a cause of death other than was was believed clinically. In “routine natural deaths” in England, 34 percent of original causes of death were proven wrong with the procedure. Additionally, more than a quarter of autopsies may reveal a major surprise other than the cause of death. But, the type of autopsy performed can reveal different results.

There are three types of autopsies:

  1. Complete – in which all body cavities are examined (including the head )
  2. Limited – which may exclude the head
  3. Selective- where specific organs only are examined.

Autopsies will usually include testing for any infections (microbiology), changes in body tissue and organs (anatomical histology), and chemicals – which can include medication, drugs or poisons (toxicology and pharmacology). In certain circumstances an autopsy might not be carried out if the coroner and a forensic pathologist can decide the cause of death from medical history and a police report.

During an autopsy, the medical examiners will need or will discover the following information:

  • The identity of the deceased person.
  • When that person died, the nature and extent of any disease they currently suffer from or have suffered in the past.
  • The nature and extent of any injury they are suffering from or have suffered in the past.
  • The cause of death.
  • The circumstances that surrounded that death.

Forensic autopsies are autopsies with legal implications and are performed to determine if death was an accident, homicide, suicide, or a natural event. Often, when the cause of death is suspicious, unknown, or a result of a criminal investigation, an autopsy may be required. Otherwise, it is up to the family to request an autopsy.

When an individual has requested a full body donation, the family must act quickly to request an autopsy if that procedure is desired. However, since the body may be examined by a team of doctors, the family may consider this donation as part of the process of learning more about the deceased. In this case, the individual who wishes to donate his or her body to science may request that a report be sent to the family after research has been conducted.

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