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Autopsy: Should I Have an Autopsy Done on My Loved One?

You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.

Autopsy: Should I Have an Autopsy Done on My Loved One?

Get the facts

Your options

  • Have an autopsy done on your loved one.
  • Don't have an autopsy done on your loved one.

Key points to remember

  • For many families, the decision about whether to ask for an autopsy can be hard. It may help to talk with a counselor or member of the clergy during this process.
  • An autopsy can answer questions about why your loved one died. After your loved one is buried or cremated, it may be too late to find out the cause of death.
  • Only you know your thoughts and feelings about having an autopsy done on your loved one. Your religion, cultural beliefs, or ethnic background may also affect your decision.
  • You may or may not have to pay for an autopsy.
  • If you request an autopsy, you can also ask that the exam be limited to certain parts of the body. But first you may want to make sure that your request will not keep the doctor from getting the information that he or she needs to answer your questions.
  • The doctor will be very careful when doing an autopsy, and in most cases the cuts won't show. An autopsy won't prevent you from having an open casket at your loved one's funeral.
FAQs

What is an autopsy, and why is it done?

An autopsy is a medical exam of a body after death. It is done to find out how and why a person died. A doctor (pathologist) who specializes in examining body tissues and fluid usually performs an autopsy. What exactly is done during an autopsy depends on the circumstances of the death and what specific issues are being looked at.

The law may require autopsies in certain cases, such as:

  • Sudden or unexpected death, such as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Death caused by an injury, including suicide, murder, an accident, drug overdose, or poisoning.
  • Deaths that are suspicious.

An autopsy begins with a careful exam of the outside of the body. This may include taking pictures of the body, weighing the body, and noting any marks on the body. Then the doctor examines the inside of the body. He or she may remove organs and take tissue samples. The doctor may look at these samples under a microscope and do tests to look for disease, infection, or drugs in the body.

Why might you want to have an autopsy done on your loved one?

You may want to have an autopsy done on your loved one if:

  • He or she died from a medical problem that had not been diagnosed before death.
  • You have questions about an unexpected death.
  • Your loved one died from an inherited disease or problem, and you or other family members may be at risk for getting it.
  • He or she died during a medical or dental procedure.
  • The cause of death may affect legal matters.
  • Your loved one died during an experimental treatment, and an autopsy will help doctors learn more about that treatment.
  • He or she died from a disease or illness, and an autopsy will help doctors better understand the disease and how well the treatment worked.
  • An autopsy will help confirm or rule out a diagnosis made before death.

What should you think about before you agree to an autopsy on your loved one?

Only you know your thoughts and feelings about an autopsy. Here are some things to consider:

  • An autopsy is not an accepted procedure for some cultures, ethnic groups, and religions. Unless it is required by law, an autopsy will not be done unless the family allows it.
  • How important is it to you and your family to have the information from an autopsy? Will knowing the exact cause of your loved one's death help you, or will the process cause you more grief?
  • An autopsy may affect legal matters. If you are unsure about this, you may want to get legal advice before you agree to an autopsy.
  • You or your family may or may not have to pay for an autopsy. Check with the hospital, nursing home, or doctor to see if there will be a charge.
  • If you request an autopsy, you can ask that the exam be limited to certain parts of the body. But first you may want to talk to the doctor who will do the exam. You can make sure that your request will not keep the doctor from getting the information he or she needs to answer your questions about your loved one's death.
  • There are no risks to having an autopsy. But it may reveal some things, such as habits and diseases, that you didn't know about the person who died. For example, the doctor may find cancer during an autopsy. Or an exam of the liver may show cirrhosis , which can be caused by drinking too much alcohol.
  • In most cases, the cuts made during an autopsy will not show after the body has been prepared for viewing. An autopsy will not prevent you from having an open casket at your loved one's funeral.

Compare your options

Compare

What is usually involved?









What are the benefits?









What are the risks and side effects?









Have an autopsy done on your loved one Have an autopsy done on your loved one
  • A doctor (pathologist) will examine your loved one's body.
  • The doctor may remove organs and take tissue samples. He or she may look at these samples under a microscope and do tests on them.
  • In most cases, the cuts made during an autopsy will not show after the body has been prepared for viewing.
  • An autopsy can answer questions about why your loved one died.
  • If your loved one died from an inherited disease or problem, you may find out if you or other family members may be at risk for getting it.
  • An autopsy may reveal some things, such as habits and diseases, that you didn't know about the person who died.
Don't have an autopsy done on your loved one Don't have an autopsy done on your loved one
  • You proceed with your funeral plans without waiting for an autopsy.
  • You don't have to delay funeral plans to wait for autopsy results.
  • You can deal with your grief without worrying that autopsy results will cause you more pain.
  • After your loved one is buried or cremated, it may be too late to find out the cause of death.

Personal stories

Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. These personal stories may help you decide.

Personal stories about having an autopsy done on your loved one

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

My mother was 82 when she died at home in her sleep. She lived a good, long life. She wasn't sick or anything, but knowing exactly how she died isn't that important to me. I am just glad she didn't seem to suffer.

Luis, age 58

My husband George had Alzheimer's disease for many years. The last few years were very difficult for our family. I chose to have an autopsy done, because it may help doctors learn more about the disease so that someday they might find a cure.

Hazel, age 84

Even though my wife, Stephanie, was a smoker for many years, we were still surprised when we found out she had lung cancer. It happened so fast. I still can't believe she is actually gone. I didn't have an autopsy, because it was clear how she died and why she was sick. Also, I was having a rough time and didn't think I could handle an autopsy after everything we'd been through.

Bill, age 54

My father was only 68 when he died. He had a heart attack and died soon after he got to the hospital. Our family was stunned because my father seemed healthy. The doctor suggested an autopsy to give us some answers. It turned out that my father's arteries were partly blocked and this caused the heart attack even though he didn't have any symptoms. Learning this information gave us some comfort. It also prompted me to talk to my family and let my doctor know that heart disease could run in our family.

Gwen, age 36

What matters most to you?

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to have an autopsy done on your loved one

Reasons not to have an autopsy done on your loved one

My loved one died without warning, and I want to know why.

The death of my loved one was expected, and knowing the exact cause of death won't help anyone.

More important
Equally important
More important

I want doctors to learn more about the disease or condition that caused my loved one's death.

I am not interested in knowing more about the disease or condition that caused my loved one's death.

More important
Equally important
More important

An autopsy is acceptable in my religion, ethnic group, or culture.

An autopsy is not acceptable in my religion, ethnic group, or culture.

More important
Equally important
More important

I want to know the cause of my loved one's death, even if we have to pay for it.

I don't want an autopsy done on my loved one if my family will have to pay for it.

More important
Equally important
More important

An autopsy won't make losing my loved one any harder than it already is.

An autopsy will cause me or my family more grief than we already feel.

More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

More important
Equally important
More important

Where are you leaning now?

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Having an autopsy

NOT having an autopsy

Leaning toward
Undecided
Leaning toward

What else do you need to make your decision?

Check the facts

1.

If I have an autopsy done on my loved one, I will not be able to have an open casket.

  • True Sorry, that's not right. An autopsy won't keep you from having an open casket at the funeral. In most cases, the cuts made during an autopsy won't show after the body has been prepared for viewing.
  • False Right. An autopsy won't keep you from having an open casket at the funeral. In most cases, the cuts made during an autopsy won't show after the body has been prepared for viewing.
  • I'm not sure It may help to go back and read "Get the Facts." An autopsy won't keep you from having an open casket at the funeral.
2.

If I request an autopsy, I can ask that the exam be limited to certain parts of the body.

  • True That's right. You can ask that the autopsy be limited to certain parts of the body. But first you may want to make sure that your request will not keep the doctor from getting the information he or she needs.
  • False No, that's not right. You can ask that the autopsy be limited to certain parts of the body. But first you may want to make sure that your request will not keep the doctor from getting the information he or she needs.
  • I'm not sure It may help to go back and read "Get the Facts." You can ask that the autopsy be limited to certain parts of the body. But first you may want to talk to the doctor.
3.

My loved one has to have an autopsy, because an autopsy is required anytime someone dies.

  • True That's not right. Unless it's a special case where it's required by law, an autopsy will be done only if the family allows it.
  • False Right. Unless it's a special case where it's required by law, an autopsy will be done only if the family allows it.
  • I'm not sure It may help to go back and read "Get the Facts." Unless it's a special case where it's required by law, an autopsy will be done only if the family allows it.

Decide what's next

1.

Do you understand the options available to you?

2.

Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?

3.

Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

Certainty

1.

How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure
3.

Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.

Your Summary

Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.

Your decision  

Next steps

Which way you're leaning

How sure you are

Your comments

Your knowledge of the facts  

Key concepts that you understood

Key concepts that may need review

Getting ready to act  

Patient choices

Credits

Credits
Credits Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Shelly R. Garone, MD, FACP - Palliative Medicine
You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.

Autopsy: Should I Have an Autopsy Done on My Loved One?

Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.
  1. Get the facts
  2. Compare your options
  3. What matters most to you?
  4. Where are you leaning now?
  5. What else do you need to make your decision?

1. Get the facts

Your options

  • Have an autopsy done on your loved one.
  • Don't have an autopsy done on your loved one.

Key points to remember

  • For many families, the decision about whether to ask for an autopsy can be hard. It may help to talk with a counselor or member of the clergy during this process.
  • An autopsy can answer questions about why your loved one died. After your loved one is buried or cremated, it may be too late to find out the cause of death.
  • Only you know your thoughts and feelings about having an autopsy done on your loved one. Your religion, cultural beliefs, or ethnic background may also affect your decision.
  • You may or may not have to pay for an autopsy.
  • If you request an autopsy, you can also ask that the exam be limited to certain parts of the body. But first you may want to make sure that your request will not keep the doctor from getting the information that he or she needs to answer your questions.
  • The doctor will be very careful when doing an autopsy, and in most cases the cuts won't show. An autopsy won't prevent you from having an open casket at your loved one's funeral.
FAQs

What is an autopsy, and why is it done?

An autopsy is a medical exam of a body after death. It is done to find out how and why a person died. A doctor (pathologist) who specializes in examining body tissues and fluid usually performs an autopsy. What exactly is done during an autopsy depends on the circumstances of the death and what specific issues are being looked at.

The law may require autopsies in certain cases, such as:

  • Sudden or unexpected death, such as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Death caused by an injury, including suicide, murder, an accident, drug overdose, or poisoning.
  • Deaths that are suspicious.

An autopsy begins with a careful exam of the outside of the body. This may include taking pictures of the body, weighing the body, and noting any marks on the body. Then the doctor examines the inside of the body. He or she may remove organs and take tissue samples. The doctor may look at these samples under a microscope and do tests to look for disease, infection, or drugs in the body.

Why might you want to have an autopsy done on your loved one?

You may want to have an autopsy done on your loved one if:

  • He or she died from a medical problem that had not been diagnosed before death.
  • You have questions about an unexpected death.
  • Your loved one died from an inherited disease or problem, and you or other family members may be at risk for getting it.
  • He or she died during a medical or dental procedure.
  • The cause of death may affect legal matters.
  • Your loved one died during an experimental treatment, and an autopsy will help doctors learn more about that treatment.
  • He or she died from a disease or illness, and an autopsy will help doctors better understand the disease and how well the treatment worked.
  • An autopsy will help confirm or rule out a diagnosis made before death.

What should you think about before you agree to an autopsy on your loved one?

Only you know your thoughts and feelings about an autopsy. Here are some things to consider:

  • An autopsy is not an accepted procedure for some cultures, ethnic groups, and religions. Unless it is required by law, an autopsy will not be done unless the family allows it.
  • How important is it to you and your family to have the information from an autopsy? Will knowing the exact cause of your loved one's death help you, or will the process cause you more grief?
  • An autopsy may affect legal matters. If you are unsure about this, you may want to get legal advice before you agree to an autopsy.
  • You or your family may or may not have to pay for an autopsy. Check with the hospital, nursing home, or doctor to see if there will be a charge.
  • If you request an autopsy, you can ask that the exam be limited to certain parts of the body. But first you may want to talk to the doctor who will do the exam. You can make sure that your request will not keep the doctor from getting the information he or she needs to answer your questions about your loved one's death.
  • There are no risks to having an autopsy. But it may reveal some things, such as habits and diseases, that you didn't know about the person who died. For example, the doctor may find cancer during an autopsy. Or an exam of the liver may show cirrhosis , which can be caused by drinking too much alcohol.
  • In most cases, the cuts made during an autopsy will not show after the body has been prepared for viewing. An autopsy will not prevent you from having an open casket at your loved one's funeral.

2. Compare your options

  Have an autopsy done on your loved one Don't have an autopsy done on your loved one
What is usually involved?
  • A doctor (pathologist) will examine your loved one's body.
  • The doctor may remove organs and take tissue samples. He or she may look at these samples under a microscope and do tests on them.
  • In most cases, the cuts made during an autopsy will not show after the body has been prepared for viewing.
  • You proceed with your funeral plans without waiting for an autopsy.
What are the benefits?
  • An autopsy can answer questions about why your loved one died.
  • If your loved one died from an inherited disease or problem, you may find out if you or other family members may be at risk for getting it.
  • You don't have to delay funeral plans to wait for autopsy results.
  • You can deal with your grief without worrying that autopsy results will cause you more pain.
What are the risks and side effects?
  • An autopsy may reveal some things, such as habits and diseases, that you didn't know about the person who died.
  • After your loved one is buried or cremated, it may be too late to find out the cause of death.

Personal stories

Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. These personal stories may help you decide.

Personal stories about having an autopsy done on your loved one

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

"My mother was 82 when she died at home in her sleep. She lived a good, long life. She wasn't sick or anything, but knowing exactly how she died isn't that important to me. I am just glad she didn't seem to suffer."

— Luis, age 58

"My husband George had Alzheimer's disease for many years. The last few years were very difficult for our family. I chose to have an autopsy done, because it may help doctors learn more about the disease so that someday they might find a cure."

— Hazel, age 84

"Even though my wife, Stephanie, was a smoker for many years, we were still surprised when we found out she had lung cancer. It happened so fast. I still can't believe she is actually gone. I didn't have an autopsy, because it was clear how she died and why she was sick. Also, I was having a rough time and didn't think I could handle an autopsy after everything we'd been through."

— Bill, age 54

"My father was only 68 when he died. He had a heart attack and died soon after he got to the hospital. Our family was stunned because my father seemed healthy. The doctor suggested an autopsy to give us some answers. It turned out that my father's arteries were partly blocked and this caused the heart attack even though he didn't have any symptoms. Learning this information gave us some comfort. It also prompted me to talk to my family and let my doctor know that heart disease could run in our family."

— Gwen, age 36

3. What matters most to you?

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to have an autopsy done on your loved one

Reasons not to have an autopsy done on your loved one

My loved one died without warning, and I want to know why.

The death of my loved one was expected, and knowing the exact cause of death won't help anyone.

More important
Equally important
More important

I want doctors to learn more about the disease or condition that caused my loved one's death.

I am not interested in knowing more about the disease or condition that caused my loved one's death.

More important
Equally important
More important

An autopsy is acceptable in my religion, ethnic group, or culture.

An autopsy is not acceptable in my religion, ethnic group, or culture.

More important
Equally important
More important

I want to know the cause of my loved one's death, even if we have to pay for it.

I don't want an autopsy done on my loved one if my family will have to pay for it.

More important
Equally important
More important

An autopsy won't make losing my loved one any harder than it already is.

An autopsy will cause me or my family more grief than we already feel.

More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

More important
Equally important
More important

4. Where are you leaning now?

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Having an autopsy

NOT having an autopsy

Leaning toward
Undecided
Leaning toward

5. What else do you need to make your decision?

Check the facts

1. If I have an autopsy done on my loved one, I will not be able to have an open casket.

  • True
  • False
  • I'm not sure
Right. An autopsy won't keep you from having an open casket at the funeral. In most cases, the cuts made during an autopsy won't show after the body has been prepared for viewing.

2. If I request an autopsy, I can ask that the exam be limited to certain parts of the body.

  • True
  • False
  • I'm not sure
That's right. You can ask that the autopsy be limited to certain parts of the body. But first you may want to make sure that your request will not keep the doctor from getting the information he or she needs.

3. My loved one has to have an autopsy, because an autopsy is required anytime someone dies.

  • True
  • False
  • I'm not sure
Right. Unless it's a special case where it's required by law, an autopsy will be done only if the family allows it.

Decide what's next

1. Do you understand the options available to you?

2. Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?

3. Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

Certainty

1. How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure

2. Check what you need to do before you make this decision.

  • I'm ready to take action.
  • I want to discuss the options with others.
  • I want to learn more about my options.

3. Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.

Credits
By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Shelly R. Garone, MD, FACP - Palliative Medicine

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