An autopsy is a medical procedure where a specially trained doctor, called a pathologist, examines the body to answer questions about why and how the person died. The pathologist examines the outside of the body, and then examines the internal organs using an incision similar to a large surgery. Tiny samples of major organs are examined under the microscope. Depending on the circumstances, small samples of blood and other body fluids may be sent for testing.
The primary reason to perform an autopsy is to determine how a person died. However, even if the cause of death appears to be obvious, an autopsy can help confirm that nothing else happened to the person, and to look for anything that would aid in figuring out or confirming the circumstances around the death.
Often, a full autopsy is necessary to answer important questions about a coroner case, but under some circumstances, the pathologist may agree to or recommend a lesser post-mortem. A lesser post-mortem involves an external examination of the body, combined with possibly a CT scan and/or toxicology testing. In cases where the death is almost certainly natural, but injury or drug toxicity need to be ruled out, and in cases where cultural or religious considerations are important to the whanau, a lesser post-mortem may be an appropriate way to determined how someone died or to rule out other possibilities of concern. The coroner will request the opinion of the pathologist and will make a decision on the scope of examination. In cases where the death is considered potentially suspicious, a full autopsy will be necessary.
The pathologist provides their initial findings to the coroner right after the autopsy examination, but if the cause of death is not yet obvious and will require further testing, such as toxicology, then the cause of death may be given as ‘pending’. Usually, the cause of death will become known once the results of those tests are available, and the next of kin is typically informed by staff at the coroner’s office once the final autopsy report has been completed and submitted to the coroner.
Most straightforward autopsies can be completed within a couple of hours. For more complex cases, such as homicides, the examination may take most of the day. However, in most cases, the body is returned to the family within a few hours, once the body is officially released by the coroner.
Yes, if the body was originally in a viewable state, a body can still be viewed after an autopsy is completed. Once the autopsy is finished, the organs are returned to the body and the incision is sutured back together (stitched up). The exam is completed in such a way that if the body is dressed, you will not be able to tell that they have had an autopsy. If you wish to view the body unclothed, the incision will look like a large surgery. The head retains its normal shape. The autopsy technicians who restore the body after the autopsy take great care to make the body as close to its original state as possible, and the funeral director will complete any further necessary adjustments to make sure the body is viewable.