An autopsy is a thorough examination of a body after death to help determine why (cause of death) and how (manner of death) the person died. Autopsies are required by law when a death is sudden and unexpected, occurs in a person who is not under a doctor's care, results from a crime or fatal accident, or occurs under suspicious circumstances.

An autopsy may be used to:

  • Determine as precisely as possible which disease or injury caused the death. This can provide family members with information about diseases or conditions that they also may be at risk for developing. This information also may be needed when the death may have been related to a crime or accident.
  • Confirm a disease diagnosis made before death (such as Alzheimer's disease), help understand how a given disease progresses, and determine the effectiveness of the treatment for that disease.
  • Help health departments or other government agencies identify and track a disease or situation that might threaten public health (such as a suspected contagious disease or contaminated drinking water).

If an autopsy will be required by law, it will be ordered by the county coroner or medical examiner. Only a doctor, often one with special training (pathologist), can perform an autopsy. If an autopsy is not required by law, the person who requests one must be the deceased person's next of kin.

Current as of: August 21, 2015

Author: Healthwise Staff

Medical Review: Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine