Autopsy Information for Parents and Relatives
Autopsy examinations are performed by a pathologist in special facilities within the hospital or the coroner's office. The body will be moved in a respectful manner from the place of death to where the examination is performed. The pathologist conducts a careful external examination of the body. Photographs and radiology studies are sometimes taken for more detailed study. An incision, usually down the front of the body, allows the internal organs to be examined. To examine the brain, an incision is made in the back of the head. Tissues and organs are usually kept for further investigation, such as microscopy.
Types of Autopsies
There are two categories of autopsies, Coroner's Autopsies and Voluntary Autopsies. The Coroner is a public official required by law to investigate deaths due to suspicious, unnatural, or unknown causes. In some cases, the Coroner may order an autopsy as a part of the investigation. A voluntary autopsy may be requested by the doctors who have been caring for your child/relative or by close relatives wishing to find out more about how their child/relative died. A voluntary autopsy is performed only with the consent of the next of kin/legally authorized representative.
Extent of Autopsy
Voluntary autopsies may be full autopsies or limited. A full autopsy involves the detailed examination of all the internal organs including the brain, chest and abdominal organs, and musculoskeletal systems. A limited autopsy involves only the examination of those organs specified on the autopsy consent. This means that no information will be available about abnormalities present in other organs/organ systems.
The brain requires one week of fixation before adequate examination, and is usually not re-united with the body. The pathologist may keep organs indefinitely. Long term availability of the organs provides an opportunity to learn important information about the underlying condition and its treatment both now and in the future. The reasons pathologists may wish to keep organs or body parts include:
- to determine the cause of death
- for the education and training of medical personnel
- for research, either current or in the future, after evaluation by the pathologist
If you would like the organs returned to the body, you must document this on the autopsy consent. Without the ability to keep the organs, the pathologists may not be able to perform a full evaluation of the causes of death and the effects of treatment.
If you allow the organs to be kept indefinitely, the hospital will respectfully· dispose of the organs when they are no longer needed. When organs are kept for medical research or educational purposes, the identity of the patient will be kept confidential.
Effects on the Funeral
The autopsy is carried out soon after death, usually the next working day. When religious observance requires a funeral within 24 hours, every effort is made to carry out the autopsy within that period. The procedure usually takes 3 hours, although some autopsy examinations may take longer. The body will be released to the funeral home after this initial stage of the autopsy. Further laboratory investigations necessary for completion of the autopsy take several weeks.
The autopsy will not interfere with public viewing of the body at the funeral. The incision down the front of the body cannot be seen when your child/relative is dressed. The incision at the back of the head is not visible as the head rests on a pillow.
Unless the autopsy is required by law or at the directions of the Coroner, your agreement is needed before any autopsy examination is carried out. Your consent to an autopsy must be an informed consent. You should give your consent only after you have had sufficient opportunity to ask questions before reaching a decision. You may need time to talk to other relatives to determine whether they have any objections to the autopsy.
Children's Hospital New Orleans does not charge families with any costs of autopsies performed on patients treated at our hospital.