An autopsy (also known as a post-mortem) is a detailed medical examination of the body conducted by a forensic pathologist.
An autopsy may be needed to help determine how and why a person died.
During the autopsy, the deceased is treated with respect and great care to preserve their dignity.
The autopsy process and types of autopsy
What type of autopsy ordered is based on the circumstances of the death and can include:
- an external examination—a visual examination of the body
- partial internal examination—an internal examination of particular organs or parts of the body only or
- an external and full internal examination—an examination of the body’s internal organs, where organs from the chest, abdomen and head are removed and examined.
Testing and analysis
As part of the autopsy, samples of blood, fluids and tissue may be taken for testing and analysis.
Tests that may be performed include:
- toxicology—where samples of blood or urine are tested for poison, drugs, medication or alcohol
- histology—where small samples of tissue may be examined under the microscope for evidence of disease
- microbiology—where samples of tissue may be tested for infection.
- neuropathology—where samples of the nervous system i.e. the brain may be tested.
The results of specialist testing may take up to several months, especially in complex cases. Once the forensic pathologist receives all the results, they prepare an autopsy report which is provided to the coroner.
Preliminary examinations are less invasive procedures that may be undertaken by a pathologist or someone supervised by a pathologist as soon as a death has been reported by police to the coroner.
The type of the examination needed is considered on a case by case basis depending on the circumstances of death.
Preliminary procedures can include a visual examination of the body, reviewing medical records, a CT scan or taking samples from the surface of the body such as hair samples, and perhaps fingerprints, samples of blood, urine and other fluids for testing.
The results of a preliminary examination may determine whether further investigation including autopsy is necessary.
Internal autopsy and organ retention
Before ordering an internal examination, a coroner must consider concerns raised by a family member or other person with sufficient interest. These concerns are usually obtained by police.
If you have concerns about an internal autopsy, notify the coroner as soon as possible through the police, the coroner’s office, the coronial counsellors or the coronial nurses.
The coroner will consider your concerns and then decide whether to order an internal autopsy. If the coroner decides an internal autopsy is necessary, they must give you a copy of the autopsy order.
A coroner must also consider a family’s views about retaining organs for specialist testing, e.g. by a neuropathologist. Decisions about organ retention are made after an internal examination has occurred. You will be contacted to ask if you have concerns about organ retention where that has been recommended by the pathologist.
The autopsy report
After all the test results have returned, the forensic pathologist prepares an autopsy report for the coroner with their conclusions about the medical cause of death.
It can take several months for the autopsy report to be completed and provided to the Coroners Court.
Family members or other persons with sufficient interest can write to the coroner to request a copy of the autopsy report.
It can be upsetting to read an autopsy report, as it contains graphic descriptions and technical medical terminology. You may wish to ask your doctor or another health professional to go through it with you.
Tissue and organ donation
Tissues such as heart valves, skin, bone and corneas (part of the eye) may be donated, depending on the circumstances of the death. Staff at the hospital or someone from Queensland Tissue Banking Program may discuss tissue donation with you.
Organ donation can occur only in very special circumstances. Staff at the hospital or someone from DonateLife Queensland may discuss organ donation with you.
Sperm from a deceased person for IVF treatment
For a reportable death, removal of sperm from a deceased person requires coroner approval. For further information refer to the Interim guidelines for removing sperm from deceased men for IVF which have been prepared in consultation with the state coroner and Queensland Health.
Releasing a deceased into the care of the family
The deceased is released to the family for burial or cremation once they’ve been formally identified, and the medical examination and all testing of the body is complete. The forensic pathologist/doctor advises the coroner that the body is ready to be released by issuing certain paperwork.
The coroner will release the body soon as possible, following the person's death. The body is usually released to the funeral director chosen by the family.
Police must have the government-contracted undertaker transport the deceased to a mortuary. However, the family is not obliged use this funeral director to conduct the funeral.
The funeral director will communicate with the Coroners Court about the release of the body. If family or relatives can’t pay or arrange for a funeral, they may be eligible for funeral assistance.
If the deceased needs to be transported interstate or overseas, arrangements should be made with a funeral director, who will prepare the body and organise any required documentation.