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Answers to Common Questions About Autopsy

Information for Families

When someone dies, doctors may ask the family for permission to perform an autopsy. For many families, it is difficult to face this decision during a time of loss and grief. Sometimes, families are not sure why the autopsy is needed, or they have questions about what will happen during the procedure. Families may be concerned about how the procedure might affect funeral arrangements or cultural traditions.

We have prepared this information to answer some of the common questions that arise about autopsy. If there is anything you do not understand, or if you have any additional questions, please ask the patient's doctor or nurse, or contact patient relations at 617-975-9750.

What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is an examination of the body after death. The examination is performed by a pathologist - a medical doctor who is specially trained to perform the procedure and to recognize the effects of illness or injury on the body. Doctors who are training to become pathologists may perform the examination under the supervision of a pathologist. The autopsy room is regarded as a special place for gathering medical knowledge. The body is treated with both dignity and respect. Specific wishes of the family are followed at all times.

Why is an autopsy done?

The main reason for doing an autopsy is to answer any questions the doctor or family may have about the illness, cause of death, or any other medical conditions the deceased person may have had. Frequently, autopsy will identify the precise cause(s) of death, providing valuable information to both doctors and family. Many families find that a more complete understanding of why the death has occurred provides some comfort. An autopsy can also reveal health problems that may be affecting someone close to the patient, such as genetic conditions or infections. In addition, information that is learned through autopsy may help doctors save the lives of others with similar conditions. In some cases, an autopsy is required by law to establish the cause and manner of death. A medical examiner in the community makes this decision if it is required.

What happens during the autopsy?

The pathologist doing the autopsy examines the outside of the body carefully, looking for any signs of illness or injury. The inside of the body is then examined, using procedures that are like those used during surgical operations. Small samples of organs or tissues may be taken for examination under a microscope. Substances in the blood are checked, and, in some cases, a genetic analysis is also performed. In some cases, pathologists may perform a "limited autopsy" instead of a full autopsy. A limited autopsy focuses on a particular area of the body or a particular body system. Although doctors prefer the more complete information that is gained during a full autopsy, a limited autopsy may be done at the family's request. In some religious or cultural traditions, a limited autopsy is a more acceptable choice than a full autopsy. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a teaching hospital and students may be present during the exam. Everyone in the autopsy room follows the same rules and policies, designed to protect the dignity and privacy of the person who has died.

Does the pathologist keep any organs?

In most cases, the pathologist will retain some organs for more detailed examination, or, rarely, for research or educational purposes. Retained organs are disposed of according to hospital policy, but may be returned to the funeral home on request. If you have special requests regarding the treatment of organs, please discuss these with the patient's doctor or nurse. Write your requests on the autopsy consent form.

Will my personal, religious, or cultural traditions be observed?

Yes. If you have any specific requests related to treatment of the body, please be sure to discuss these with the patient's nurse and the doctor who talks to you about the autopsy, and write your requests on the autopsy consent form. Your requests will be honored. (In rare cases, we cannot honor a request because of legal or public health concerns. The patient's doctor will explain if this applies in your case.) If you wish, a medical center chaplain can be called to talk with you about the decision to perform an autopsy. If you wish to speak to a chaplain, please tell the patient's doctor or nurse. Or you may wish to call your own clergy or anyone else whom you think could help you make this decision. (Our chaplain can contact clergy representing your religion at your request.)

Will the autopsy affect funeral rituals or arrangements?

The autopsy should not delay a funeral. It will not interfere with plans to view the body. Staff in our pathology department will work closely with your funeral director to make sure that things go as smoothly as possible.

Who may give consent for an autopsy?

The health care proxy (HCP) gives consent for the autopsy. If no HCP has been designated, the patient's next of kin gives consent for the autopsy. That is, if there is a spouse, the spouse gives consent. If not, the decision moves to any children, then to parents, and so on. The person giving permission will be asked to sign a consent form for the procedure. There is space to write any specific instructions for the pathologist.

Will we learn the results?

The results of the autopsy are shared with the patient's doctor. Families may contact the patient's doctor for information about the autopsy. Or, they may request a copy of the autopsy report through the patient relations department at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, 617-975-9750.

Contact Information

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215