Should I Request an Autopsy After a Death?

An autopsy or post-mortem examination is a surgical procedure performed by a forensic pathologist to examine a deceased human body and its organs to determine the cause of death. If authorities consider a death suspicious, they will order an autopsy, but only around 8% of all deaths in the U.S. are autopsied.

Cadaver on autopsy table, label tied to toe, close-up
Darrin Klimek / Getty Images

Reasons Why Requesting an Autopsy May Be Important

Even in cases of natural death, however, the next-of-kin may still wish to request an autopsy for several reasons:

  • To confirm a medical diagnosis made before the death involving a genetic disease that could affect surviving family members. While advancements have been made in accurately diagnosing Alzheimer’s, for example, a brain autopsy remains the only method of confirming the disease.
  • If the death was unexpected — particularly if it occurred during a health-related procedure, such as surgery, giving birth, etc.
  • When knowing the precise cause of death could impact legal matters, such as payment of an insurance policy.
  • To further the study, understanding or treatment of a disease in order to possibly benefit others in the future.

Before requesting an autopsy, the next-of-kin should thoroughly consider the possible ramifications, which might include:

  • The effect of the post-mortem procedure on grieving survivors. An autopsy involves making incisions in the chest and/or skull of the deceased in order to inspect/remove organs, which some loved ones might find an unpleasant idea.
  • Cultural or religious acceptance. For example, both Orthodox and Conservative Jewish law generally prohibit autopsies because of the belief in the inviolability of the body after death.
  • Additional financial obligation. The cost of the autopsy might be charged to the family if not ordered by a medical examiner.
5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Goldman L. Autopsy 2018: still necessary, even if occasionally not sufficient. Circulation. 137(25):2686-2688. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.118.033236

  2. Yale School of Medicine. Reasons for an autopsy.

  3. PBS. Autopsy 101.

  4. Oppewal F, Meyboom-de jong B. Family members' experiences of autopsy. Fam Pract. 18(3):304-8. doi:10.1093/fampra/18.3.304

  5. National Centralized Repository for Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementias. Autopsy and religion.

Additional Reading
  • "Rates of autopsy." 2012.

  • "Should I have an autopsy done on my loved one?" 2008.

  • Sources:
    "Autopsy." 2010. Aurora Health Care.

By Chris Raymond
Chris Raymond is an expert on funerals, grief, and end-of-life issues, as well as the former editor of the world’s most widely read magazine for funeral directors.