When post-mortems are carried out

A post-mortem examination will be carried out ifit's been requested by:

  • a coroner because the cause of death is unknown, or following a sudden, violent or unexpected death
  • a hospital doctor to find out more about an illness or the cause of death, or to further medical research and understanding

The two different types of post-mortem are discussed below.

Coroners post-mortem examination

A coroner is a judicial officer responsible for investigating deaths in certain situations (see below). Coroners are usually lawyers or doctors with a minimum of five years' experience.

In most cases, a doctor or the police refer a death to the coroner.A death will be referred to the coroner if:

  • it's unexpected, such as the sudden death of a baby ( Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) )
  • it's violent, unnatural or suspicious, such as a suicide or drug overdose
  • it's the result of an accident or injury
  • it occurred during or soon after a hospital procedure, such as surgery
  • the cause of death is unknown

The mainaim of a post-mortem requested by a coroner is to find out how someone died and decide whether an inquest is needed. An inquest is a legal investigation into the circumstances surrounding a person's death.

If someone related to you has died and their death has been referred to a coroner, you won't be asked to give consent (permission) for a post-mortem to take place. This is because the coroner is required by law to carry out a post-mortem when a death is suspicious, sudden or unnatural.

A coroner may decide to hold an inquest after a post-mortem has been completed. Samples of organs and tissues may need to be retained until after the inquest has finished.

If the death occurred in suspicious circumstances, samples may also need to be kept by the police, as evidence, for a longer period. In some cases, samples may need to be kept for a number of months or even years.

The coroner's office will discuss the situation with you if, following an inquest, tissue samples need to be retained for a certain length of time.

Hospital post-mortem examination

Post-mortems are sometimes requested by hospital doctors to provide more information about an illness orthe cause of death, or to further medical research.

Sometimes, the partner or relative of the deceased person will request a hospital post-mortem to find out more about the cause of death.

Hospital post-mortems can only be carried out with consent. Sometimes, a person may have given their consent before they died. If this isn't the case, a person who is close to the deceased can give their consent fora post-mortem to take place.

Hospital post-mortems may belimited to particular areas of the body, such as the head, chest or abdomen. When you're asked to give your consent, this will be discussed with you. During the post-mortem, only the organs or tissue that you've agreed to can be removed for examination.

The HTArecommends that you should be given at least 24 hours to consider your decision about the post-mortem examination. You should also be given the details of someone to contact in case you change your mind.

Content supplied by the NHS Website

Medically Reviewed by a doctor on 21 Dec 2018