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What is a Post-Mortem Examination?

A post-mortem examination (also known as an autopsy) is an examination of the body following death. It is carried out by a pathologist, a doctor specialising in the study of disease and injury in the body and in determining the cause of death. The pathologist works to standards set by The Royal College of Pathologists.

The postmortem examination will start with an initial external examination of the body followed by an internal examination. The pathologist will need to remove and examine the major internal organs. In most cases the organs are returned to the body afterwards.

Although some information can be obtained from looking directly at organs in a postmortem examination, often the only way to understand properly what has happened is to look at part of an organ under the microscope, carry out special tests or obtain a second medical opinion. Occasionally it is necessary to retain whole organs for further examination, as this can provide more detailed understanding of the cause of death.

It is usually necessary to retain small tissue samples for further examination and for further tests such as looking at chromosomes or genes or to search for infections due to bacteria or viruses that may have caused a death. The samples of tissue taken for testing are usually retained in case they are needed to answer further questions about the cause of death.

Is it possible to view the body after a post-mortem examination?

The body will be prepared by the mortuary staff and then released to the care of the funeral director, and the necessary preparations are made for you to visit with the deceased at the funeral home.

Normally any incisions that have been made during the postmortem examination will not be visible. The funeral director will be able to tell you if there are any visible signs of the post-mortem examination before you view the body.

The body is normally released immediately after the Coroner’s post-mortem examination. Exceptionally, usually in criminal cases, it may be necessary for the pathologist to retain the body for re-examination a few days later. If this is the case you will be given information about this – every effort will be made to release the body as quickly as possible.

Will the family be given the results of the post-mortem examination?

The pathologist will provide the preliminary results of the post-mortem examination to the Coroner very quickly. The final written report may not be available for some considerable time because further tests may need to be carried out and these can take time to complete.

The Coroners Liaison Officer will contact you as soon as the preliminary results are available and will give these to you. They will also tell you about any organs or tissue that may have been retained following the postmortem examination.

When the final postmortem report is completed it will be sent to the Coroner who will forward a copy to the deceased’s doctor. The next-of-kin will be informed when this happens and may also request a copy of the final report from the Coroner. The report may contain complex medical terminology, and you may wish to discuss the findings with your family doctor.

If you feel that you would like to discus the post-mortem examination with the pathologist who carried it out you should contact the Coroners Liaison Officer who will arrange this.