A post-mortem, also known as an autopsy, is the examination of a body after death. The aim of a post-mortem is to determine the cause of death.
Post-mortems are carried out by pathologists (doctors who specialise in understanding the nature and causes of disease).
The Royal College of Pathologists and the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) set standards that pathologists work to.
Post-mortems provide useful information about how, when and why someone died, and they enable pathologists to obtain a better understanding of how diseases spread.
Learning more about illnesses and medical conditions benefits patients because it means that they will receive more effective treatment in the future.
When post-mortems are carried out
A post-mortem examination will be carried out if it has been requested by:
- a coroner, because the cause of death is unknown, or following a sudden, violent or unexpected death
- a hospital doctor, to find out more about an illness or the cause of death, or to further medical research and understanding
The two different types of post-mortem are discussed below.
Coroner’s post-mortem examination
A coroner is a judicial officer responsible for investigating deaths in certain situations (see below). Coroners are usually lawyers or doctors with a minimum of five years' experience.
In most cases, a doctor or the police will refer a death to the coroner. A death will be referred to the coroner if:
- it is unexpected, such as the sudden death of a baby (cot death)
- it is violent, unnatural or suspicious, such as a suicide or drug overdose
- it is the result of an accident or injury
- it occurred during a hospital procedure, such as surgery
- the cause of death is unknown
The main aim of a post-mortem requested by a coroner is to find out how someone died and decide whether an inquest is needed. An inquest is a legal investigation into the circumstances surrounding a person’s death.
If someone related to you has died and their death has been referred to a coroner, you will not be asked to give consent (permission) for a post-mortem to take place.
This is because the coroner is required by law to carry out a post-mortem when a death is suspicious, sudden or unnatural.
A coroner may decide to hold an inquest after a post-mortem has been completed. Samples of organs and tissues may need to be retained until after the inquest has finished.
If the death occurred in suspicious circumstances, samples may also need to be kept by the police, as evidence, for a longer period. In some cases, samples may need to be kept for a number of months or even years.
The coroner’s office will discuss the situation with you if, following an inquest, tissue samples need to be retained for a certain length of time.
Hospital post-mortem examination
Post-mortems are sometimes requested by hospital doctors to provide more information about an illness or the cause of death, or to further medical research.
Sometimes, the partner or relative of the deceased person will request a hospital post-mortem to find out more about the cause of death.
Hospital post-mortems can only be carried out with consent. Sometimes, a person may have given their consent before they died. If this is not the case, a person who is close to the deceased can give their consent for a post-mortem to take place.
Hospital post-mortems may be limited to particular areas of the body, such as the head, chest or abdomen. When you are asked to give your consent, this will be discussed with you. During the post-mortem, only the organs or tissue that you have agreed to can be removed for examination.
The HTA recommend that you should be given at least 24 hours to consider your decision about the post-mortem examination. You should also be given the details of someone to contact in case you change your mind.
What happens during a post-mortem
A post-mortem will be carried out as soon as possible, usually within two - three working days of a person’s death. In some cases, it may be possible for it to take place within 24 hours.
The post-mortem will take place in an examination room that looks similar to an operating theatre. The examination room will be licensed and inspected by the HTA.
During the procedure, the deceased person’s body is opened and the organs removed for examination. A diagnosis can usually be made by looking at the organs.
After the post-mortem has been completed, the pathologist will return the organs to the body.
What happens after a post-mortem
After a post-mortem, the pathologist writes a report of the findings. It is sent to the deceased person’s GP by the coroner's office or hospital. A copy of the report can be obtained from the coroner's office but there will usually be a fee for this.
The partner or a relative of the deceased person can arrange to discuss the post-mortem with the doctor in charge of the person's care while they were in hospital (if applicable).
If the post-mortem was requested by the coroner, the pathologist’s report may be more limited. In these cases the purpose of the investigation is to identify the cause of death rather than make a more detailed assessment.
The HTA provide further information about what happens before, during and after the examination in their leaflet called: Post-mortem examination: your choices about organs and tissue (PDF, 68kb).