Autopsy Information for Families

When Death Comes to the Aid of Life

When a hospital autopsy is requested, it is because the physicians and the hospital think it is important.  At the same time, doctors and nurses recognize the sensitivity of the issue and encourage you to ask any questions not answered here. 

If your family member or loved one is in the care of a physician at Fletcher Allen Health Care, questions can be directed to your physician, or to one of the pathologists of the Fletcher Allen Autopsy Service at (802) 847-3570, the Anatomic Pathology office at (802) 847-3566 (days), or (802) 847-9585 (evenings and weekends).

The Autopsy

The word "autopsy" comes from the Greek, and means "seeing for oneself."  Often what the autopsy reveals has not been seen by medical tests or surgery.

The procedure has been known throughout history as a way of letting the family understand what has happened to the person they love. Giving permission for a postmortem examination is a means of increasing medical knowledge which in turn benefits you, your family, and also the community at large.

The request for permission to perform and autopsy comes when you have just lost someone you love and are unlikely to want intrusions on your grief.  Your thoughts and feelings may be in turmoil.  You are then asked to make a decision you understandably may not wish to make: to consent to the performance of an autopsy.

We hope the following information is helpful in answering some of the questions you may have about the hospital autopsy.   

Frequently Asked Questions 

Who gives permission for a hospital autopsy ?

A hospital autopsy may be requested either by the patient's physician or by the family.  However, for a hospital autopsy to be performed, a written or telephoned consent must be obtained from the legally designated next-of-kin or responsible party.

When signing the form, the signer may stipulate any restriction or limitations to the autopsy examination.  Religious beliefs will be respected.  The autopsy will be performed by one or more physicians called pathologists who are specially trained to recognize the anatomic changes brought about by disease.

What is the purpose of a hospital autopsy ?

The primary purpose of a hospital autopsy is to put to rest any questions the family or physician may still have regarding the nature of the illness, cause of death, and/or co-existing conditions.  In addition, what is learned through an autopsy on one patient may significantly contribute to save the lives of others.  For these reasons, there is no charge for a hospital autopsy for patients being cared for at Fletcher Allen or through an Fletcher Allen physician or caregiver. 

What happens during a hospital autopsy ?

Before beginning, the pathologist carefully reviews the patient's hospital record and discusses the clinical findings and history with those physicians who cared for the patient.

The autopsy itself begins with a recording of any external evidence of the patient's illness.  Next the pathologist, using a standard surgical procedure, examines the internal organs, taking tissue samples for microscopic examination.  A variety of special procedures may be used, such as performing X-rays, culturing micro-organisms, digital photography, chromosome analysis, and postmortem chemistries.  

The initial autopsy procedure usually takes 3-5 hours.  Many  more hours are spent examining the microscopic slides and any other test results, and writing the final report.

Will the body be treated with respect ?

The autopsy room is regarded as a special place for gathering scientific knowledge.  An air of dignity and respect for the patient and for the survivors' wishes is maintained at all times. 

Does an autopsy affect funeral arrangements ?

Each procedure of an autopsy is done so that it will not interfere in any way with the funeral service or viewing of the deceased.

Arrangements with the funeral home are made by the family at the time of death.  The autopsy service and funeral home coordinate their services to preclude delay.  Upon completion of the autopsy, the funeral home of the family's choice is contacted immediately by the hospital.  The wishes of the family and their funeral home are always foremost.

How do I find out the results of the autopsy ?

Preliminary findings from the hospital autopsy are usually available within 24 hours.  A preliminary report is filed on the next working day and is then sent to the patient's physicians.  The completed final report takes 3 to 4 weeks to prepare, due to the microscopic studies which are performed.  The final report is sent to the hospital physician, the patient's primary care or referring physician, and also becomes a part of the patient's hospital record.  

The next of kin may request a copy of the Fletcher Allen Autopsy report from one of the attending physicians or from the Health Information Management Department at Fletcher Allen (802) 847-2846 (to request a copy of the autopsy portion of the medical record). 

Who benefits from an autopsy ?

The family, the physicians, and the community may all benefit from the performance of an autopsy.

The Family
Finding certain diseases - for example, cancer - leads to early detection of curable cases in other family members.  Finding no evidence of certain diseases - colon polyps or cancer, for example - relieves worries that family members have about their own health.  Discovering an infectious disease - for example, tuberculosis - leads to preventative measures among family members and other close contacts. Discovering evidence of a work-related disease might lead to a successful worker's compensation claim.  Settling of insurance claims or death benefits are sometimes aided by evidence from an autopsy.

The Physicians and Community
The autopsy increases scientific knowledge of disease by helping doctors find causes for illness, letting doctors see the effects of surgery and treatment, and finding important causes of disease such as cancer. The autopsy can improve the human environment and assure public safety - for example, by finding evidence of infections, toxic substances and environmental pollutants.  A forensic autopsy may help explain the exact causes of traumatic injuries, such as those from automobile accidents.

Can the family still make an anatomic donation ?

Organ and tissue donations are still possible, and are usually done before an autopsy.  For many, the benefits of these donations will ease a profound sense of loss by knowing that the death of a loved one has helped someone else to live. If the patient has arranged to donate his body to a medical school for anatomic study, there would not be an autopsy or report.

What is a medical examiner case ?

When death is due to trauma, poisoning, and is a homicide, suicide, or accident, or is of undetermined cause, the case falls under State authority.  These are called medical examiner  cases.  Some, but not all medical examiner cases require an autopsy to help establish the cause and manner of death.  In those instances in which an autopsy is not required, a hospital autopsy may be requested either by the physician or the family.