A post mortem (or autopsy) is an examination of a body after death by a doctor, usually a pathologist. Post mortem examinations are performed to:
Yes. A post mortem (or autopsy) examination can be full or limited and may be coronial or non-coronial.
A full post mortem involves:
A limited post mortem is performed when the next of kin has set limits on the extent of the examination, for example:
A coronial post mortem is ordered by the Coroner to ensure that he or she can deliver a balanced, accurate finding regarding the cause of death. Coronial post mortems are governed by the
NSW Coroner’s Act 2009.
Further information is available from
NSW Coroners Court about the:
The NSW Health policy directive
PD2010_054 Coroners Cases and the Coroners Act 2009 provides direction and guidance to NSW Health staff regarding reporting a death to the Coroner. The
Coronial Checklist is available to help NSW Health staff to determine whether a death is reportable to the Coroner.
A non-coronial post mortem is performed with the consent of the senior available next of kin when the cause of death is known and there is an interest in determining, for example:
These post mortems are conducted in a hospital or a health pathology facility at the request of either a treating doctor or occasionally the deceased person’s family.
Non-coronial post-mortems are governed by the
Human Tissue Act 1983.
Generally, if the person died from an unknown cause or an unnatural cause, such as an accident, the result of a crime, or while living in a state institution (such as a gaol), it is likely that their death was reported to the Coroner and a Coronial post mortem was conducted. The Coronial Information and Support Program, telephone (02) 8584 7777, can assist you to find out if the person’s death was reported to the Coroner.
If the doctor treating the person was able to tell you the cause of their death or the extent of disease and they asked a family member for consent to do the post mortem, it is likely that the person had a non-coronial post mortem. You should contact the hospital where the person died for more information.
Yes. Written consent is required from the person (given when they are alive) or their senior available next of kin (after death).
In some cultures arrangements around the death of a person may traditionally be performed by someone other than the senior available next of kin. The
Human Tissue Act 1983 allows a senior available next of kin to authorise another person (a delegate), in writing, to exercise their functions. The delegate can give written consent for a non-coronial post mortem.
The post mortem (or autopsy) will be carried out as soon as possible after consent has been given, to minimise delays for funeral arrangements. If you wish to see the body prior to the post mortem, let the doctor know and arrangements will be made.
The senior available next of kin or their delegate can consent to the use of the person’s organs or tissue for purposes such as research and teaching.
You do not have to consent to the use of organs or tissue for these other purposes. The post mortem (or autopsy) will still be carried out if the senior available next of kin or their delegate does not consent to the use of organs or tissue for other purposes.
The post mortem (or autopsy) may be conducted by a pathologist or a medical student or specialist in training under the supervision of a pathologist. Assisting at a post mortem is an important part of ongoing education for medical students and specialists in training.
There may be costs associated with the post mortem (or autopsy) examination if you request it. This should be discussed with your doctor or hospital representative before consent is given.
The pathologist who will perform or supervise the post mortem (or autopsy) will review the deceased person’s medical records and then thoroughly examine the body by:
The pathologist may wish to retain one or more organs (usually the brain or heart) in order to test for signs of disease or injury that are not immediately apparent. Usually this will be discussed as part of seeking consent to conduct the post mortem (or autopsy); however the pathologist may not know until they have begun the post mortem that it would be of benefit to keep a particular organ.
If the pathologist does retain organs, it is possible to ask that they are returned to the body before it is released for burial or cremation. This may result in a delay for the funeral. If it is not possible to delay the funeral, the senior available next of kin or their delegate can decide whether they would either like the organs returned to them or the funeral director for separate burial or cremation or they would like the organs disposed of by the facility where the post mortem was conducted (usually by cremation). Small samples of tissue and fluids taken during the internal examination will not be returned to the body.
Once the examination is complete the incisions are closed and the body is cleaned and clothed. Usually the family is able to view the body after the post mortem (or autopsy) has been completed. In most cases, the incisions from the post mortem are not noticeable once the body has been clothed.
A preliminary post mortem (or autopsy) report should usually be made available. The final report is prepared once all test results are returned. This may take some months. It is important to discuss this with the doctor when you are considering consent to a post mortem.
A post mortem (or autopsy) report gives details of the examination of the body. It may also give details of any laboratory tests which have been carried out.
Post mortem reports are technical medical documents. It is helpful to seek the assistance of a doctor, preferably the deceased person’s treating doctor, when reading and discussing the report to ensure that it is fully understood.
The senior available next of kin or their delegate has the right to receive a copy of the post mortem (or autopsy) report. They can also decide whether they want the report to be sent to them, their family doctor or the doctor(s) who cared for their loved one. As the report contains technical language, it is suggested that you make a time with one of these doctors to discuss the report and any implications it may have for you or your family.
During the consent discussion, the details of the person who is to receive the report will be recorded on the consent form. Once the post mortem (or autopsy) report is available, a copy will be posted to that person.
Yes, provided you are the senior available next of kin or their delegate. You should contact the clinical information department of the hospital or facility where the post mortem (or autopsy) was conducted. There may be a fee for obtaining a copy of the report.