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Giving consent for an autopsy

What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is a medical exam of the body after death. It can help families find answers about their loved one’s illness or death.

Reasons for an autopsy

An autopsy can help you learn more about why your child died. It can also give information that could help doctors:

  • Understand the disease
  • Identify new treatments for it
  • Improve the quality of care for patients in the future

This exam may find that the illness was genetic or caused by something in the surroundings. These findings can affect other family members.

Autopsies may not find a cause of death. But you will get the autopsy report (results of the medical exam) either way.

What happens in an autopsy?

A physician (pathologist) does the autopsy as soon as possible after death. It is done in an atmosphere of dignity and respect and lasts 2–4 hours.

When complete, the hospital will notify the funeral home and release the body.

The doctors look for clues about the cause of death by:

  • Examining internal organs
  • Taking tissue samples
  • Looking at the samples under a microscope

Organs and tissues may be:

  • Kept to find the cause of death
  • Used for teaching and research
  • Returned to the body
  • Disposed of in a respectful way by hospital staff

If you want the organs returned to the body, let the hospital know. You can also ask that the tissue or organs not be used for research.

An autopsy will not affect burial, cremation, or funeral plans

You can still hold an open-casket funeral even if an autopsy is done.

None of the autopsy marks can be seen after the funeral home staff prepares the body.

The hospital can do the autopsy faster if burial is planned soon after death. It is important to let the care team know your request.

The autopsy report 

The first results from the autopsy often are ready in 2–3 days. The final report may take several weeks.

Staff may talk with you about the report in person or by phone.

Consent for an autopsy

You will be asked to give consent (permission) for your child’s autopsy. You can ask for and consent to an autopsy if you are the next of kin or the person legally in charge of the person who died.

You must sign a consent form for your child’s autopsy. The form will ask if you want to:

  • Allow a full autopsy
  • Limit the autopsy to exclude certain organs or areas

A full (unlimited) autopsy includes:

  • Head
  • Thorax (chest)
  • Abdomen and organs
  • Other areas as needed

A limited autopsy will only include the areas of the body that you give consent to examine.

You will also have the option of allowing the hospital to keep tissue samples for research. They may use these to:

  • Learn more about the disease
  • Improve patient care

Your child’s care team can answer questions about an autopsy.

Key Points

  • An autopsy is a medical exam done after death.
  • Autopsies can help families understand the cause of death and the disease.
  • Autopsies can help researchers understand more about the disease.
  • Autopsies take place in an environment of respect and dignity.
  • Autopsies do not affect plans for a funeral and viewing, cremation, or burial.
  • Families will be asked to give consent for an autopsy.

Reviewed: July 2022