Autopsy Q&A by Dr. Stöppler

How soon after death does an autopsy need to be performed?

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Söppler, MD
Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD

Answer:

There is no hard and fast rule for the time limit in which an autopsy may be performed; in fact, sometimes forensic autopsies (cases in which the findings are important for criminal or other legal investigations) are performed on bodies that are disinterred (removed from the grave) months to years after death. One noted example is an autopsy that was performed on the "Ice Man," a body discovered in 1991 in the mountains between Austria and Italy that had been preserved in a glacier for 5,000 years.

However, most autopsies are performed as soon as possible following death. The quality of the body's tissues (and thus the quality of the autopsy results) deteriorates over time because bacterial contamination and other decay processes affect the body. In reality, this generally means that autopsies in a hospital usually are performed on the day of death, if possible, or early on the following day.

Pathologists performing medical (non-forensic) autopsies can almost always accommodate any special religious or other considerations that would restrict the time available to perform an autopsy.

Thank you for your question.


Last Editorial Review: 12/12/2006


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