Nothing's certain in life but death and taxes. Even so, the cause of death can be uncertain. When a person dies in suspicious or unnaturally circumstances, an autopsy can sometimes explain why.
Television shows may make it seem that every death is suspicious and there's at least one, if not two or more, bodies to examine, and occasionally to exhume, or dig up. Shows such as Quincy M.E., Crossing Jordan, or CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have certainly captured the public’s interest in the process.
Autopsies: Looking For Answers
An autopsy is a thorough examination of a dead body. In most instances, it includes complete internal and external examinations:
- Bruises, cuts, puncture holes and other signs of physical trauma are looked for externally
- The chest cavity is opened so internal organs may be examined for trauma, as well as signs of disease
Autopsies often include blood, tissue and other tests, such as when there are questions about whether the person being examined was using alcohol or drugs at or near the time of death.
When Autopsies Are Performed
Autopsies are common, and sometimes legally required, in certain circumstances. The most common is when a death is suspicious, like when there are no witnesses or the death is sudden and unexpected. The deaths of "Jackass" star Ryan Dunn and the "King of Pop" Michael Jackson are good examples.
Often, as with the Michael Jackson case, the autopsy leads to criminal charges being filed - usually serious homicide charges, like manslaughter, and perhaps murder.
Other Deaths Require Autopsies
The laws usually vary from state to state as to when autopsies are legally required. For example:
- In states like Georgia, autopsies are required when a child under the age of seven dies unexpectedly or without explanation
- Many states follow Michigan and require autopsies when deaths are caused by violence or abortion and when prison inmates die
- Louisiana and practically every other state requires autopsies when there are suspicions a death was caused by any serious disease, such as HIV-AIDS or e. Coli
Who Performs Autopsies
In practically all cases, autopsies are performed by a licensed medical professional employed by the local government, such as your city or county. Common names for these professionals are coroners and medical examiners.
Permission Not Needed
As a general rule, when an autopsy is legally required, a medical examiner doesn't need the permission or consent from the deceased person's spouse or next-of-kin before performing the autopsy. In some states, like Florida, every effort must be made to get the consent of the decedent's health care surrogate, spouse or next-of-kin.
Next: Blocking or
Blocking or Limiting an Autopsy May Be Possible
In some states, such as California, New York and Ohio, you or a family member may be able to block or limit an autopsy based on your religious beliefs. You typically need to fill out a certificate of religious belief stating that an autopsy or dissection of your body violates your religious beliefs. A family member should give the certificate to the coroner as soon as possible.
It may not stop all autopsies, though. In many of the states recognizing the religious belief objection, an autopsy may still be done if the death involves a child or there's a suspicion of foul play or contagious disease. In such cases, however, medical examiners typically try to make the least intrusive autopsy as possible.
When Opting for an Autopsy is a Good Idea
An autopsy can be requested even when one's not required by law. For example, surviving family members may request an autopsy when:
- There's a possibility the decedent had a genetic disease or condition
- The decedent was under the care of a physician, raising the question of medical malpractice and a possible wrongful death lawsuit
- The decedent is an organ or tissue donor
Others May Ask, Too
Also, it's not uncommon for someone other than family to ask for an autopsy. For example:
- The decedent's life insurance company may ask for an autopsy to prove the death wasn't a suicide or caused by other reasons, like a preexisting condition, voiding the policy
- Medical or scientific groups often ask for autopsies to aid in research for diseases and conditions like Alzheimer's and cancer
In cases like these, the consent of the decedent's spouse or next-of-kin is needed. Also, voluntary autopsies are usually performed by private medical professionals, not coroners.
A loved one's death is stressful enough. Having to consider whether or not to have an autopsy performed - if in fact you have the choice - can make it a more stressful time. It's important to talk your loved ones now and respect their wishes after they're gone.
Questions for Your Attorney
- How do I donate my body to science? Can my family block the donation after I die?
- Does my state honor the religious objection to autopsies?
- Is there any way at all to stop the autopsy of a young child?