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When you’ve lost someone you might not expect the possibility of a post-mortem. A post-mortem can have an impact on arranging their funeral.

So to help you make informed decisions about post-mortem examinations, and what to can expect if you have to go through the process, we’ve put together this guide. Hopefully, it makes things a little clearer. Make sure you also talk about all your options with hospital staff and your family so that you have all the information you need to help you make the right decision for your loved one.

What is a post-mortem examination?

A post-mortem, sometimes known as an autopsy, is a medical examination of a body after the person has passed away. The purpose of a post-mortem is to figure out the cause of death – how, when and why someone died.

Who does a post-mortem?

A post-mortem is carried out by a specialist doctor called a pathologist. They are experts in diseases and what causes them. They carry out post-mortem examinations in line with the standards set out by the Royal College of Pathologists and the Human Tissue Authority.

What happens in a post-mortem?

  • The post-mortem will take place in a room that looks similar to an operating theatre.
  • The pathologist will examine the outside of the body.
  • They will open the body and examine the organs.
  • They may need to take samples from the organs for testing.
  • On rare occasions, organs might be removed from the body to be examined fully.
  • The organs will be placed back inside the body, but in some instances will be removed for further testing if needed.
  • Once the pathologist has done any further testing that’s needed the samples will be respectfully disposed of by the hospital.

Remember: it is possible to have any organs or samples that have been taken as part of testing returned to you so that they can be buried or cremated. Just make sure you tell the doctors before the post-mortem takes place.

What happens after a post-mortem?

After the post-mortem the pathologist will write the report on what they’ve found. If it was requested by the coroner, then the coroner’s office will tell you what the cause of death was. If it was carried out at a hospital for research purposes, then you’ll have to ask for the results at the hospital where the post-mortem took place. If you’d like to discuss the results in more detail, you can arrange to speak to the doctor who was in charge of the person’s care while they were in hospital. Or you might want to discuss this with your GP instead.

When is a post-mortem required?

Not everyone has a post-mortem examination after they pass away. There are 2 professionals who might ask for a post-mortem examination to be carried out:

  • A coroner
  • A hospital doctor

But a post-mortem is only legally required when a coroner asks for a post-mortem.

If a coroner requests a post-mortem:

If a coroner asks for a post-mortem to be carried out it’s usually because the cause of death is not known. But it can also be required because the death was sudden, violent or unexpected. When a coroner has ordered a post-mortem, they don’t need to get permission from the next of kin because they have a legal responsibility to investigate deaths that may be part of a criminal investigation.

If a hospital doctor requests a post-mortem:

If a hospital doctor asks for a post-mortem to be carried out it’s usually to learn more about the cause of death to further medical research. The doctor will ask the next of kin for permission to carry out the post-mortem. And they will discuss the process with you so that you know what to expect.

More FAQs

Here's some more answers to commonly asked questions about post-mortems.

How long does a post-mortem take?

A post-mortem needs to be carried out as soon as possible. So, it’ll usually take place 2-3 days after the person passed away. Sometimes it may be as soon as 24 hours after. Overall, the time it takes to carry out a post-mortem examination depends on how complicated it is to figure out the cause of death so it can take between 5 and 7 days. If the death was due to natural causes, then it will be released shortly after. But if the coroner decides to hold an inquest after the post-mortem takes place, then this could make the process longer. It could be weeks, potentially months, until the body is released.

Can you get a copy of a post-mortem report?

Yes, you can. You can request this from the coroner’s office or from the doctor or hospital that carried out the post-mortem. The coroner’s office may charge a fee for a copy of the report, and you’ll have to contact them directly to organise it. Or the hospital can send a copy of the report to your GP so they can talk to you about it if you like.

How long after post-mortem is the funeral?

In most cases, a post-mortem will take a few days to complete. So funeral services should not be delayed because of a post-mortem. But it’s sensible to not make funeral arrangements until you’ve been given a release date for the body, just in case there are any delays. You could also discuss this with your funeral director so that they’re aware of the situation and any delays that could happen.

Can you refuse a post-mortem in the UK?

Unfortunately, this depends on the circumstances. If a coroner has requested a post-mortem, you can’t stop this from happening. All you can do is tell the coroner’s office how you would like your loved one to be treated. For example, if the person was a Muslim female, you could request that a female pathologist carries out the examination in line with your religious beliefs. If a doctor asks you to carry out a post-mortem examination after your loved one died in the hospital, then the next of kin can refuse this. This may be due to religious or cultural beliefs. Or it may be a personal choice. Whether you give consent to a post-mortem in this case is completely up to you.

Have any concerns?

If you’re concerned about the way hospital staff communicated with you about a post-mortem or have concerns about post-mortem itself, you can make a complaint to the Human Tissue Authority (HTA). (All premises that carry out post-mortem examinations must have a licence from the HTA.) If you need to make a complaint about the coroner, you can contact the coroner’s office and send them your complaint in writing. You should also send a copy of your complaint to your local authority.

Need support?

If you’re struggling to come to terms with the outcome of a post-mortem or finding it difficult to find closure, don’t forget to ask friends and family for help. If you think you need bereavement support, get in touch with Cruse Bereavement Support on 0808 808 1677. They offer free counselling and support when you need it most.

Photo by Kobus Louw on iStock.