What is a Post-Mortem Examination?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 14 August 2019
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A post-mortem examination is also called an autopsy. It is a range of studies and usually some dissection performed on a deceased body and it may be conducted for a variety of reasons. Typically doctors or coroners conduct a post-mortem examination to determine cause of death, either from a medical or potentially legal standpoint. Autopsies and dissections can also be performed as part of study in the medical profession, so that students can learn and identify the various internal structures of the body, and view organs or internal structures that show signs of certain diseases. Veterinarians can also conduct autopsies on animals, and may do so if they suspect disease hazardous to other animals, or at the request of the animal's owner.

A coroner or forensic examiner performs a post-mortem examination when cause of death is suspect or can’t be determined. The examination may not only include evaluation of internal structures but also might include close scrutiny of the exterior of the body to look for signs of trauma or residual evidence that might suggest a crime has been committed. The forensic examiner may additionally evaluate tissue and blood samples for evidence of crime, or simply to determine cause of death. This information is summarized and may help provide valuable information about potential suspects or about the actions that caused a person’s death. Generally, these forms of autopsies do not require permission from family members, and in some cases may be required by law.


Hospitals that want to perform a post-mortem examination on a person usually must get permission from family, unless cause of death is unidentifiable or is determined to be potentially from criminal behavior. There can be some value in having cause of death analyzed when doctors are uncertain what medical conditions were responsible for a death, and this is especially the case when patients suffer from rare medical problems that are not studied on a frequent basis. Doctors conducting a post-mortem examination may gain valuable information that helps them change or direct treatment for other patients in the future.

There are reasons why family members may request that a post-mortem examination not be performed. They may have strong religious beliefs that a person’s body is essential to gain entry to an afterlife. Many religions forbid (or did so in the past) any examination or dissection of a body after death, which posed great problems for the medical community. In order to conduct a post-mortem, physicians or servants employed by physicians might steal bodies from newly dug graves. Prior to the proliferation of autopsies, guesses on what the internal body’s structure looked like were very often wrong, creating tremendous error in treatment. Some religions or sects still forbid a post-mortem examination in all but very grave circumstances.


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Post 2

I'm not crazy about the idea of a medical autopsy being performed on a loved one, but I'd hate to deny a doctor or a law enforcement officer the chance to solve a mystery or two. If a post-mortem examination can reveal evidence of a crime or determine the original cause of death, I say it's worth the extra time and expense. I've heard stories about criminals being found not guilty simply because the victim's body was never seen by a forensic medical examiner.

Post 1

When my mother died from pancreatic cancer, I started making the usual phone calls to make arrangements for her funeral. Someone from the hospital called me and said the circumstances of her death made it a "coroner's case", and the medical examiner would be conducting a post-mortem examination. Her oncologist wanted to know if the cancer originated in her pancreas or did it spread from another affected organ.

I wasn't expecting a medical autopsy to be performed, but in hindsight it was a useful thing. I obtained a copy of the final autopsy report and it showed that the tumors on her pancreas were much older and harder than other tumors in her body. We now knew she had pancreatic cancer first, and it spread to other organs later. There was nothing more that could have been done to treat it.

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