An autopsy (also known as a post-mortem examination or necropsy) is a
medical investigation of a corpse.
The term "autopsy" derives from the Greek for "seeing with your own
eyes". "Necropsy" is from the Greek for "seeing a dead body".
During the post-mortem examination the body is opened and the main
organs removed, weighed, inspected, and dissected. Pathology tests
(usually histology) and other medical tests may also be performed. It
is sometimes necessary to retain a whole organ for examination -
usually the brain or the heart.
An important aim of the autopsy is to reconstitute the body such that
it can be viewed, if desired, by relatives of the deceased following
the procedure. The main incision to examine the internal organs is a
single opening from the lower neck, straight down to just above the
pubic bone. To remove and examine the brain it is necessary to make an
incision over the back of the head, from behind one ear - over the
crown - to behind the other ear. It is unusual to need to examine the
face, arms, hands or legs internally. When the organs are replaced,
the incisions are sewn up, and the deceased in repose in a shroud it
is common for relatives of the deceased to not be able to tell the
procedure has been done when the deceased is viewed in a funeral
The principal aim of an autopsy is to discover the cause of death, to
determine the state of health of the person before they died, and
whether any medical diagnosis and treatment before death was
appropriate. Studies have shown that even in the modern era of use of
high technology scanning and medical tests, the medical cause of
death is wrong in about one third of instances unless an autopsy is
performed. In about one in ten cases the cause of death is so wrong
that had it been known in life the medical management of the patient
would have been significantly different.
In the United States, and most Western countries, the number of
autopsies performed in hospitals has been decreasing every year since
1955. Critics, including pathologist and former JAMA editor George
Lundberg have charged that the reduction in autopsies is negatively
affecting the care delivered in hospitals, because when mistakes result
in death, they are often not investigated-- and learned from.
Where a person has given permission in advance of their death,
autopsies may also be carried out for the purposes of teaching or
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An autopsy is frequently performed in cases of sudden death, where a
doctor is not able to write a death certificate, or when death is
believed to be due to an unnatural cause. These examinations are
performed under a legal authority (Medical Examiner or Coroner) and do
not require the consent of relatives of the deceased. The most extreme
example is the examination of murder victims, especially when medical
examiners are looking for signs of death or the murder method, such as
bullet wounds and exit points, signs of strangulation, or traces of