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Should I Request an Autopsy?

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Updated December 22, 2012

Question: Should I Request an Autopsy?
Answer: An autopsy or post-mortem examination is a surgical procedure performed by a forensic pathologist to examine a deceased human body and its organs to determine the cause of death. If authorities consider a death suspicious, they will order an autopsy, but as of 2007, fewer than 9% of all deaths in the U.S. are autopsied. Even in cases of natural death, however, the next-of-kin may still wish to request an autopsy for several reasons:

  • To confirm a medical diagnosis made before the death involving a genetic disease that could affect surviving family members. While advancements have been made in accurately diagnosing Alzheimer’s, for example, a brain autopsy remains the only method of confirming the disease.

  • If the death was unexpected -- particularly if it occurred during a health-related procedure, such as surgery, giving birth, etc.

  • When knowing the precise cause of death could impact legal matters, such as payment of an insurance policy.

  • To further the study, understanding or treatment of a disease in order to possibly benefit others in the future.

Before requesting an autopsy, the next-of-kin should thoroughly consider the possible ramifications, which might include:

  • The effect of the post-mortem procedure on grieving survivors. An autopsy involves making incisions in the chest and/or skull of the deceased in order to inspect/remove organs, which some loved ones might find an unpleasant idea.

  • Cultural or religious acceptance. For example, both Orthodox and Conservative Jewish law generally prohibit autopsies because of the belief in the inviolability of the body after death.

  • Additional financial obligation. The cost of the autopsy might be charged to the family if not ordered by a medical examiner.

Sources:

"Autopsy." www.aurorahealthcare.org. 2010. Aurora Health Care. Retrieved July 17, 2012. http://www.aurorahealthcare.org/yourhealth/healthgate/getcontent.asp?URLhealthgate=14771.html

"Rates of autopsy." www.medscape.com. 2012. Medscape.com. Retrieved July 17, 2012. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1705948-overview#aw2aab6b3

"Should I have an autopsy done on my loved one?" www.webmd.com. 2008. WebMD.com. Retrieved July 17, 2012. http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/should-i-have-an-autopsy-done-on-my-loved-one

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