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Post mortem (or autopsy)

What is a post mortem?

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:

  • provide information about the cause of death
  • provide information about other possible inherited conditions and improve clinical care.

Is there more than one type of post mortem?

Yes. A post mortem (or autopsy) examination can be full or limited and may be coronial or non-coronial.

A full post mortem involves:

  • external and internal examination of the organs and tissues in the head, abdomen and chest cavities
  • taking small samples of tissues from the major organs for later testing
  • possible retention of some organs and tissues for more detailed analysis.

A limited post mortem is performed when the next of kin has set limits on the extent of the examination, for example:

  • external examination only
  • external examination and some testing on small samples of tissue
  • internal examination limited to certain areas of the body. nternal examination limited to certain areas of the body.

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:

  • the extent of the condition or disease that caused the death
  • the effects of treatment or
  • whether any undiagnosed disease might have contributed to the death.

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.

I’m searching for a post mortem (or autopsy) report on a family member who has died. How do I know if the person had a coronial or non-coronial post mortem?

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.

Non-coronial post mortems

Is consent required for a non-coronial post mortem?

Yes. Written consent is required from the person (given when they are alive) or their senior available next of kin (after death).

I am the senior available next of kin but in my culture it is not appropriate for me to make these decisions. Can someone else do it for me?

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.

What happens after consent is given for a 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.

Can I consent to organs being retained for other purposes?

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.

Who conducts the post mortem?

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.

Will I have to pay for a post mortem examination?

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.

What happens at a post mortem?

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:

  • examining the outside of the body for marks or abnormalities that might indicate injury or disease
  • performing an internal examination using a surgical procedure. The pathologist usually make two incisions (cuts); one across the back of the head and another on the front of the body. This allows the pathologist to examine all the major organs including the brain if necessary. Small samples of tissue or body fluids will usually be taken for later microscopic examination.
  • performing a laboratory examination, which may involve microscopic examination of the tissue samples taken during the internal examination or other testing looking for evidence of disease.

Why would the pathologist need to retain organs?

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.

What happens after the post mortem?

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.

When and how will I find out the results of the post mortem?

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.

What is a post mortem report?

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.

Who is entitled to a non-coronial post mortem report?

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.

How do I request a copy of the report?

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.

I declined to receive a copy of the post mortem report at the time and I have now changed my mind. Can I still get a copy?

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.

Current as at: Wednesday 9 February 2022