How does an autopsy work?

(Autopsy, dissection, post-mortem examination)

The clinical autopsy is a cadaver opening. In the following you will find out why this can make sense, how an autopsy works and what the difference is between a clinical and a forensic autopsy.

What is an autopsy?

The autopsy of a corpse is also known as an autopsy, dissection, or an after-exam. It can be useful when a person dies and the cause of death is unclear. A pathologist or forensic doctor will then perform the autopsy to clearly determine the cause of death. As part of an autopsy, the corpse is opened and various organs are examined.

By the way: autopsies are being carried out less and less in Germany. This is mainly due to a lack of acceptance of the autopsy for emotional reasons and a lack of knowledge on the part of relatives regarding the purpose, use and execution of the autopsy.

What is a clinical autopsy?

Basically there are clinical and forensic autopsies. Both types of autopsy differ in their underlying purpose:

  • A clinical autopsy is about clarifying the exact natural causes of death and / or previous illnesses of the deceased. In this way, treatment errors or third-party negligence can be excluded as the cause of death. This can be important for insurance issues, among other things.
  • A forensic autopsy is ordered by the court or the public prosecutor if the cause of death is unclear or unnatural. As part of the autopsy, you can check whether it is, for example, an accidental death or a homicidal offense. The time of death can also be determined with a forensic autopsy.

How does an autopsy work?

Whether a clinical or forensic autopsy: An autopsy always includes an external and an internal examination of the corpse. The first thing to do is the external examination of the corpse, then the inside is examined. All in all, an autopsy takes around one to two hours.

  • The external autopsy deals with the external features of the corpse. A pathologist or forensic doctor documents, among other things, body height, body weight, nutritional status, death spots or rigor mortis. Characteristic features such as tattoos, scars, surgical wounds or dentition and teeth are also recorded
  • During the internal autopsy, the skull and / or the abdominal cavity of the deceased is opened. For this, a Y or T-shaped incision on the upper body of the corpse is necessary in order to examine various organs. In many cases, the pathologist only assesses the organs with the naked eye and takes smaller tissue samples. However, the organs can also be completely removed and examined.

Important: The consent of the relatives is always required for an autopsy of a corpse. Unless the deceased has already given this consent himself during his lifetime (for example in a living will).

What happens after the autopsy?

After the autopsy, the organs are put back into the body. If there are cavities, they are filled with cellulose to give the body a natural shape. Then the pathologist or forensic doctor sutures the Y or T cuts and washes the corpse.

At the end a detailed autopsy report is written. This report contains all important test results for the attending physician. The family doctor of the deceased can also receive the assessment report on request. The doctors then discuss the findings of the autopsy with the relatives.

How is the funeral after an autopsy?

A normal burial is possible after the autopsy. If the undertaker dresses the deceased and places them in a coffin, the previous autopsy is hardly visible to relatives. Of course, the deceased can also be cremated or otherwise buried.

Why is an autopsy useful for relatives?

  • Establishing the cause of death is often very important to families. A clinical autopsy clarifies the cause of death and / or the illness of the deceased. Many loved ones can then cope better with the loss of a loved one.
  • An autopsy can also reveal work-related illnesses. This can lead to compensation payments for relatives, for example. In addition, an autopsy can reveal hereditary diseases that may require treatment for relatives.

What does a clinical autopsy cost?

The autopsy costs are borne by whoever orders the autopsy. If a doctor orders the autopsy, for example, the responsible hospital bears the costs. In the case of autopsies ordered by a court, the public sector pays the costs; and when relatives order an autopsy, they have to pay for it. Ordering and paying for an autopsy yourself can be useful, for example, if relatives want more certainty about the circumstances of the deceased's death.

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