What happens at a post-mortem

Posted: 05/07/2018

It isn’t a question that we like to muse on too much, in much the same way many of us try to avoid approaching the subject of death entirely, but on the other hand, a large number of us enjoy watching fictional criminal investigation programmes often involving in the death of someone, many involving post-mortems (such as Silent Witness) as well as true-life crime documentaries involving the mentioning of autopsies such as in Making a Murderer. So, with this in mind, perhaps it has led to a curiosity as to what really happens at a post-mortem. Perfect Funeral Plans explains everything you need to know about them in the following article.

What is a post-mortem?

If you aren’t entirely sure what a post-mortem is, this is an examination carried out by pathologists (ie specialists in understanding how and why diseases develop) on a body after the person has passed away, and it is both the Royal College of Pathologists and the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) who make sure that pathologists adhere to certain standards when autopsies are carried out.

The main reason as to why a post-mortem is carried out is in order to clarify the exact reason why the person died. The autopsy (as it also commonly referred to) also can help answer other questions too surrounding someone’s death. These include how the person died, as well as when and how. All of which helps the pathologists undertaken the work to grasp a greater understanding as to how diseases develop and spread.

As a result, this means that post-mortems are helpful not just determining why someone died, but also potentially helping patients suffering from the very diseases or medical conditions that another has passed away from, in order to help prevent death and create more effective treatment in hospitals.

When will a post-mortem be carried out?

There are two different circumstances in which a post-mortem may be requested. This could be requested by one of the following medical professionals:

Hospital post-mortem examination

A hospital doctor, who either wants medical research to be carried out about the illness causing death or in order to aid a better understanding of why the death occurred. However, an autopsy could also be requested by the partner or relative of the person who has passed away, though it is not necessarily the case that this request will be granted.

It is important to remember that a hospital post-mortem can only be carried out with permission. This could, in fact, be from the person who has died (they may have granted their consent prior to their death). In all other cases, the consent needs to be from someone who was close to the person who has passed away (such as a relative or partner) in order for the autopsy to proceed.

When it comes to what you are giving consent to with hospital post-mortems, it may be just limited to certain areas of the body (such as the abdomen or head). This means that it is only the areas that you have consented for an autopsy to be carried out on that can be removed from the body in order to be examined.

Coroner’s post-mortem examination


There is number of different circumstances that could lead to a coroner’s investigation.

A post-mortem may also be requested by a coroner, having been referred to a death through a doctor in the large majority of cases. Coroners decide whether an inquest (a legal investigation) should be carried out after the post-mortem has been done. To clarify exactly who coroners are, these are judicial officers (who are either trained as doctors or lawyers, having t least five year’s professional experience). There are a number of different reasons as to why the deceased may be referred to a coroner. This includes:

  • If the cause of death remains unknown
  • If the death is suspected to be suspicious or violent (e.g. suicide)
  • If it may be the direct result of a specific injury or an accident
  • It occurred during or soon after surgery

Whereas with hospital post-mortems consent is required, this will not be the case if a relative has died and their death has been referred by a doctor to a coroner. The reason why, is that the coroner is legally obliged to carry out post-mortems on any deaths that are considered sudden, unnatural or suspicious.

What happens at a post-mortem?

It is usually the case that autopsies are carried out on the body as soon as possible. Sometimes, this may be within 24 hours but at the maximum, it is usually within three working days of someone having passed away. However, if there are particular organs that require in-depth examination, this may turn into an investigation that could take up to two months to complete.

A post-mortem will always take place in an examination room. During the procedure, organs are removed from the deceased’s body in order to examine them. Depending on the cause of death, simply looking at the organs can help to verify exactly what led to the death of the person.

Once the examination has been undertaken, the pathologist will then return any organs that had been looked at to the deceased’s body. It may be possible to organise a viewing with the body after the post-mortem has been carried out.

At this point, once the examination has been completed, release papers will be issued and then the undertakers that you have chosen to organise the funeral will then collect the deceased from the mortuary.

After the post-mortem

You will be told the results of an autopsy if the post-mortem had been requested by the coroner. However, if it had been requested by a hospital doctor it may be the case you have to pay a small fee in order to access the pathologist’s report. This will need to be requested at the hospital where the autopsy was carried out.