How can you tell if an autopsy was conducted on an ancestor? Or, if you plan to conduct research on health, environment and correlations, can you use autopsy records for your work? Autopsy records in hospitals, medical examiner and coroner’s offices are usually kept for decades or longer. While family members can request and expect to obtain a copy of the autopsy report many years later, it may be difficult to obtain some autopsy records depending upon what you plan to do with those records. Some states require that the next-of-kin family member make the request.
How do you find autopsy records? Death certificates may contain information about an autopsy, and you might find autopsy reports among coroner’s records or in hospital records. Checking coroner’s reports is more productive, as hospital records are considered private except to next of kin. However, each hospital does maintain an individual policy as to access to records or how long those records are kept.
Additionally, each state maintains rulings about autopsy reports. For instance, in March this year, a California appellate court ruled that coroner and autopsy records can be considered investigatory files when used by a local agency for law enforcement purposes. The decision came in February in a case involving a reporter who sought such records as she prepared a book on a murder trial.
In January this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that autopsy records should be made available to the public and should be released by county coroners. The 5-1 ruling resulted from efforts by two newspapers to obtain the autopsy report for an Easton police officer shot and killed inside headquarters in 2005.
In a footnote, McCaffery noted that the Right-to-Know Law that took effect earlier this month said autopsy records are not subject to disclosure, but also said the new law does not trump other state laws. The newspapers sought access under the Coroner’s Act, which requires coroners to deposit their “official records and papers” with the courthouse prothonotary (principal clerk of a court) for the year at the end of the following January.
The Coroner’s Act was noted in April:
“It is the view of the OOR [Office of Open Records] that the mandate of the Coroner’s Act continues to govern public access to autopsy reports, which the Court has deemed to be an ‘official record’ of the coroner’s office,” the ruling states. “Thus, as official records of the coroner’s office autopsy records are public record, as defined under the RTKL, as of the date of required filing – 30 days after the end of each year.”
“If a citizen requests an autopsy report, and it has been filed with the prothonotary in accordance with the Coroner’s Act, the record is a public record and available under the RTKL,” the ruling continued. The OOR noted that provisions of the RTLK do not apply when they conflict with other federal or state laws.
“If the autopsy report has not yet been filed under the Coroner’s Act, the autopsy report may be protected under [the autopsy report exemption] of the RTKL until made public record as governed by the provisions of the Corner’s Act.”
Although authorities are granting access to autopsy records, these records do not always exist or they go missing under mysterious circumstances. And, some counties in Pennsylvania now are seeking to roll back state mandate. Additionally, not all deaths undergo an autopsy procedure, which means that researchers and genealogists may need to rely on death records instead. This solution can be problematic, as assigning cause of death in California – let alone across the United States – frequently is flawed by a lack of medical information and clouded by mistaken assumptions. Experts say it’s likely that at least a third of the more than 230,000 death certificates issued in California each year are dead wrong.
To avoid presumptions, more information other than death records may be required. Interviews with those who were familiar with the deceased often help, if memories have not been clouded. For instance, one woman recently interviewed stated that death records for her grandfather and great-grandfather showed that both men died from heart failure. “They did die from heart failure,” the woman stated. “But, those heart failures both were caused by long battles with bone cancer.”
Without that interview, this family history may never have seen light, as the bone cancer never was noted on the death certificate and autopsies were not performed. The next effort, then would be to seek access to hospital records through that woman, who was next-of-kin.
When it comes to research efforts that clarify family health histories or correlations between health and environmental issues, the work is about as difficult as it comes…