Post-mortem examinations

Note on COVID-19: Rules to protect people during the pandemic may affect viewing a body.

What is a post-mortem examination?

A post-mortem examination or autopsy is a medical examination of a body to determine the cause of death, carried out by a specialist doctor called a pathologist.

A post-mortem examination will be required usually when a death is sudden, suspicious or unnatural. A post-mortem may not be required in all sudden deaths, for example, where the cause is easily determined or known.

Your permission is not required for a post mortem, but you can ask why it is considered necessary.

What happens in a post-mortem?

Usually the pathologist will open and examine inside the body. This is called an ‘invasive autopsy’.

Small tissue samples are commonly taken to be examined under a microscope. Some organs may be removed for closer examination. Rarely, organs are retained. 

Blood and urine sample will also likely be taken, and possibly other samples, such as stomach contents, to test for toxic substances, such as alcohol or drugs.

Care is taken during the post-mortem to protect the deceased’s appearance and the body will be closed again once the autopsy is complete. 

If you have objections for faith or other reasons, or concerns about the way an invasive autopsy will be carried out, you should say so. It may be possible for the body to be scanned instead.

What happens to tissue samples or retained organs?

Tissue samples, or retained organs, can be reunited with the body after a post-mortem examination. Sometimes this may mean delaying a burial or cremation. 

Alternatively, you can decide that a burial or cremation should take place and the samples or organs can be disposed of by the pathologist in a respectful way. 

Medical staff may want to keep tissue samples for research, education or training purposes. They can only do this if the person who died was an adult and had given permission, or with the permission of their nearest relative.

Post-mortem results

After the post-mortem examination, the pathologist will provide a report on the cause(s) of death.

Next of kin are entitled to a copy of a loved one’s post-mortem examination report. You may or may not want to see it. The report can be sent to your GP who can help explain it. A pathologist may also be able to discuss the report with you. 

If criminal proceedings are taking place in connection with a death, the report may not be available until they have finished.