An autopsy is the examination and dissection of a body to determine the cause of death. An autopsy may be mandatory, when required by law, or discretionary, when made at the request of surviving family members.
State laws generally require an autopsy if a person:
- Died under suspicious circumstances.
- Was unexpectedly found dead.
- Died without having recently seen a physician who can attest to a cause of natural death.
- Is suspected of having had a disease that may threaten the public health.
The attending physician, coroner, or medical examiner will initiate the process and complete the required paperwork.
Family members or someone who is legally responsible for the deceased, such as a guardian or conservator, may also request a full autopsy or one limited to some body parts. Either type of autopsy is usually performed at a local hospital. There is sometimes a charge for a discretionary autopsy, generally ranging from $4,000 to $5,000, which is not covered by insurance. Survivors might request an autopsy if a death was:
- Due to an undiagnosed medical problem.
- Likely due to a genetic disease or problem.
- The basis for a possible lawsuit, such as medical malpractice.
Survivors who wish to request an autopsy should contact a licensed doctor for help. They may need to hire an independent pathologist for the procedure if the local hospital is unwilling or unable to perform it.
How to get an autopsy report
Those interested in receiving a copy of the report must notify the coroner or medical examiner who conducted the autopsy -- and generally pay about $20. It usually takes several weeks to issue the written autopsy report, which gives the cause and manner of death.