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Post mortem examination



When an individual dies, in the majority of cases a doctor is able to provide a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death. If a doctor is unavailable, the death must be reported to the Coroner who will decide if a post mortem examination is required.

What is a post mortem?

A post mortem examination is also known as an autopsy. It involves examining a body after death, with the objective of establishing the cause of death.      

Who carries out a post mortem?

Post mortem examinations are conducted by pathologists, who are specially trained doctors, with help from trained technical staff. They take place in the mortuary.

What are the different types of autopsy?

There are two types of autopsy; clinical and forensic:

    • Clinical Autospy – In some cases, a doctor might request an autopsy. A clinical autopsy is undertaken to establish the nature of the disease/condition which has caused death and give additional insight for medical research purposes and to ensure that the standard of care at hospitals.
  • Forensic Autospy – A forensic autopsy will be undertaken in order determine the time of death, cause and manner of the death. Following the autopsy, the pathologist will examine all the evidence and classify the cause of death as natural, accidental, homicidal, suicidal or undetermined. 

Are autopsies mandatory?

When someone dies suddenly and it is not clear why, an autopsy will be undertaken in order to determine the cause of death. This is an investigation that is required by law and does not require the agreement of relatives.

Clinical autopsies require the consent of the deceased’s next of kin and there are options available regarding the extent of the examination. In some cases, it could actually be family members asking for the autopsy to be undertaken.

Only a small proportion of deaths require an autopsy. In the UK there are over 500,000 deaths per year, in total only 20% of deaths are subject to a post mortem. 

What does a port mortem involve?

An autopsy will be carried out as soon as possible, usually within 2 to 3 days of a person’s death. The pathologist undertakes an internal and external examination of the body, in order to determine the cause of death. This can involve removing internal organs for testing and collecting samples of tissue or bodily fluids such as blood. 

An autopsy usually takes a couple of hours. But, waiting for test results for drugs, poisons and diseases can take several weeks.  

What happens after a post mortem?

The pathologist will write a report on the findings.             

If the post mortem was requested by the coroner, the coroner or coroner's officer will let you know the cause of death determined by the pathologist.

If the post mortem was requested by a hospital doctor, you will have to request the results from the hospital where the post mortem took place. 

Usually the results of the examination will be available within about 12 weeks.

Will the autopsy delay the funeral?

Normally an autopsy takes place within a few days of the death and the procedure only takes a few hours, therefore they should not be any significant delay in the funeral arrangements.

When the post-mortem has been completed, release papers will be issued and the appointed Funeral Director will be able to collect the body from the mortuary in preparation for the funeral.

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