Forensic pathologists can use autopsies to discern someone’s identity, determine the cause and manner of death, and estimate when death occurred. However, not all autopsies yield clear findings.

Legal entities, hospitals, and individual citizens can all request autopsies.

This article takes a detailed look at autopsies. After explaining what they are for and who performs them, it details who can request and pay for autopsies. It will also discuss the autopsy process and what happens after one.

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According to a 2022 review, the purpose of an autopsy is to acquire information surrounding an individual’s death. This information may include:

  • the dead individual’s identity
  • the cause of death, such as cancer, multiorgan failure, severe trauma, etc.
  • the manner of death, such as whether it was natural, suicide, homicide
  • the mechanism of death, such as whether there was severe blood loss, poisoning, strangulation, etc.
  • an estimate of when the death occurred, which becomes less accurate as time passes

As the same 2022 review explains, autopsies require medical professionals with special training. These medical professionals are called pathologists. Part of their training covers how to examine dead people’s bodies and their organs in order to acquire relevant information.

Coroner’s autopsy vs. hospital autopsy

Forensic or coroner’s autopsies can help in cases of suspicious, unknown, or potentially aggressive causes of death.

Another type of autopsy called a clinical or hospital autopsy, happens in a hospital setting with a pathologist and is requested by the family of the deceased to ascertain why their loved one may have passed away.

Legal authorities within the state, hospital officials, and individual citizens can all request autopsies.

As the aforementioned 2022 review explains, legal authorities must request an autopsy when someone has died unexpectedly, under suspicious circumstances, or “unnaturally.” In this context, an “unnatural” death means a death from an unexpected cause, such as the discovery of the corpse of an otherwise healthy person. It could be the result of factors like untreated health problems, accidental trauma, suicide, or homicide.

Hospital officials can also request autopsies. This may be necessary when hospital treatment has failed to prevent death. Under these circumstances, the hospital may want to understand the details of their patient’s death.

Individual citizens can also request autopsies for friends, family members, or loved ones. They can do so via private autopsy services.

If a state orders a coroner’s autopsy, then the state must bear its costs. This can happen during the course of a criminal investigation. The relatives or carers of whoever has died do not need to contribute to the payment in any way.

However, some individuals may wish to request an autopsy for someone that they knew, even if the state did not order one. In this case, the individual in question must bear the cost of the autopsy. Costs may vary from state to state.

As the aforementioned 2022 review explains, the exact details of an autopsy may vary from case to case. They process might involve:

  • body weight and other physical measurements
  • photographs to document bruises and other injuries
  • radiographs, such as X-rays
  • fingerprints
  • retrieval of any foreign bodies, such as bullets, glass fragments, etc.
  • tissue or body fluids for toxicology and DNA testing
  • examination of any clothes and accessories on a body
  • examination of the outside of the body
  • examination of the inside of the body

Pathologists have several methods of examining the inside of the body, including:

  • examining organs without removing them
  • examining organs after removing them one by one
  • examining organs after removing some of them together

Pathologists will also need to take samples of tissues and bodily fluids before testing them. They may need to acquire additional photographic evidence of some internal findings.

Finally, forensic pathologists must restore the body to the highest possible standard.

Forensic pathologists will relay information to whoever has requested the autopsy. This may be a legal authority, a hospital, or an individual. Legal authorities and hospitals may then pass this information to the deceased person’s family or loved ones.

Not all autopsies yield definitive results. Sometimes, forensic pathologists cannot determine the deceased person’s identity, time of death, or cause of death.

What happens after an autopsy depends on many details, which can vary from case to case.

As the same 2022 review states, people can request second autopsies. This can happen when a first autopsy yields inconclusive findings. However, if the findings seem conclusive, the relevant authorities can use them. For instance, the findings may become evidence for a police investigation or court case.

Once there is no further need for an autopsy, the deceased person’s loved ones can have a funeral.

Here are some frequently asked questions about autopsy.

What happens to the body after an autopsy?

After an autopsy, an individual’s body becomes the responsibility of either family members or the state.

How long after death can an autopsy be done?

Forensic pathologists can perform autopsies many years after death.

Can you see a body after an autopsy?

Family and loved ones should be able to see the body after an autopsy.

Autopsies are postmortem examinations performed by forensic pathologists to find out information about a deceased person. This may be their identity, an estimate of when the death occurred, or the cause and manner of death.

Forensic pathologists can do all this with visual inspection techniques, surgical methods, laboratory tests, and by examining clothing or items on a body.

Legal authorities can order autopsies as part of a police investigation or for the purposes of a court case. Hospitals can request autopsies when an individual dies under their care. These are medicolegal and clinical autopsies, respectively. Individual citizens can also pay for private autopsies.