An autopsy is a surgical procedure to examine the body and its internal organs. It is performed after death.

Parts of the Body Involved

The entire body, including internal organs are examined.

Reasons for Procedure

An autopsy is not done after every death. An autopsy may be performed at the request of the family or doctor. Reasons for autopsy include:

  • To answer questions about the health (prior to death) of the deceased
  • To determine the exact cause of death
  • To resolve legal or medical concerns

Risk Factors for Complications During the Procedure

There are no risk factors.

What to Expect

Prior to Procedure

Before an autopsy, there must be positive identification of the body and an autopsy permit signed by the legal next-of-kin. The body is transported to the morgue and held in a refrigeration unit until the autopsy.

Description of the Procedure

Autopsies follow this general procedure:

  • External examination—The body is measured, and any abnormalities of the external body surfaces are recorded.
  • Opening the trunk:
    • A Y-shaped incision is made in the skin starting at the front of each shoulder, extending around the navel, and down to the pubic bone. The skin, muscle, and soft tissues are then separated from the chest wall.
    • Each side of the rib cage is cut with an electric saw to provide access to the heart and lungs. The pericardial sac that covers the heart is cut, and the pulmonary artery is examined for blood clots.
    • The abdominal muscle is separated from the rib cage and diaphragm to expose the abdominal organs.

    Major Organs—Male

    Internal organs 3D

    © 2008 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.

  • Organ removal—Using special techniques of dissection, the organs in the trunk are cut and removed from the body in one block. All organs (heart, lungs, liver, intestines, stomach, pancreas, kidneys, spleen, pelvic organs) as well as the major arteries are individually examined. They are weighed, washed, and dissected as necessary. Some tissue samples may be removed for further lab examination.
  • Brain removal—A deep incision is made into the scalp. The incision runs from behind one ear, over the crown of the head, to behind the other ear. Skin and soft tissues are peeled down across the face in the front, and down to the nape of the neck in the back. An electric saw is used to cut through the skull around the equator. The brain is lifted out and placed in a formaldehyde solution for two weeks. This helps to preserve the brain, and makes it firmer and easier to handle.

Once the autopsy is complete, the body is sewn back together. Procedures vary regarding organ replacement; dissected organs may be returned to the body or incinerated. If the organs are not returned to the body, the mortician will put filler in the body cavity to retain the body's shape.

After Procedure

Tissue samples are sent to a lab for analysis. Results are available within a few weeks, and a final autopsy report is usually completed in 30 to 60 days.

How Long Will It Take?

The autopsy typically takes 2 to 4 hours, depending on the reason for the and its complexity.


The results of the autopsy should provide more definitive answers regarding the death of the person.


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

Family Doctor


BC Health Guide

Health Canada


Uthman, E. American Board of Pathology website. Available at: .

Last reviewed November 2007 by Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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