In certain situations when someone dies in Ireland, it may be necessary to carry out a postmortem examination (also called an autopsy) of the deceased's body. A postmortem examination is a medical examination of a dead body to determine the exact cause of death. In the case of a violent death, the postmortem may be necessary as part of a criminal investigation. Postmortems in Ireland are carried out by a specific type of physician called a 'pathologist'.
It's important to remember that during a postmortem examination, the body is treated with utmost respect and no disfigurement of the body takes place. In fact, the body may be viewed afterwards, and usually should not delay funeral arrangements.
The family or next of kin will normally be asked for their permission before a postmortem is carried out. However, where a Coroner has ordered a postmortem examination, the permission of the next of kin is not necessary.
During a postmortem examination, all body cavities (head, chest and abdomen) are examined and the organs dissected. Small blocks of tissue and blood samples may be retained by the pathologist for further examination. Occasionally, it may be necessary for the pathologist to retain a whole organ (or organs) for more detailed examination in order to establish the cause of death. Where an organ is retained, this is purely for the purpose of establishing or clearly determining the cause of death. Consent of the next-of-kin is not required, but they will be notified. In addition, the next-of-kin will be required to express a preference for ultimate disposal of any organs removed. Retention of an organ for any other purposes by a pathologist (i.e., teaching, research, etc.) requires specific consent from the next-of kin.
Following the postmortem examination, the body will normally be released to the spouse or next-or-kin immediately after the examination has been completed
Although the need for a postmortem will not usually delay the funeral, the results may not be available until three to eight weeks later. In certain circumstances, it may be several weeks before the postmortem report is received from the pathologist. For example, in situations where a toxicology (drug) screen is required it may be several months before the postmortem report is completed. Queries relating to postmortem reports should be made to the Coroner’s office and not to the hospital concerned.
You can discuss the results with the deceased's doctor once the results are available, and you can then proceed with registering the death in the usual way. You cannot register the death until the postmortem results are received by the Coroner's Office. Read more about death certificates here. Prior to inquest (or whilst awaiting the postmortem report) the Coroner will provide on request an Interim Certificate of the Fact of Death. (This may be acceptable to banks, insurance companies and other institutions but you should check with the institutions for their requirements).
Each year in Ireland, organ donors save the live of countless people. If someone is an organ donor, but their death is (or will be) reportable to a Coroner, permission of the Coroner and next-of kin is required before organs can be donated. In situations where the Coroner grants permission for donation, the following postmortem examination will be limited.
It is for the Coroner to decide this matter, following consultation with the Gardai and advice from medical professionals. In general, the Coroner will facilitate requests for organ donation. Read more about body and organ donation in Ireland here.
Post mortem practice and Organ retention
In May 2005 the Department of Health commissioned a report into post mortem practice and procedures. The Madden Report (2006) sets out the facts relating to post mortem practice in Ireland (including organ retention) in relation to children born alive and under 12 years between 1970 and 2000. View the Madden Report on Post Mortem Practice and Procedures and it's recommendations here (pdf).
The Report makes more than 50 recommendations and in January 2006 the Minister for Health requested an action plan be prepared to implement the recommendations. The Minister has also agreed to set up a Working Group to examine issues not covered under the terms of reference of the Madden Report. That is, post mortem practice in relation to babies in Ireland who died before or during birth, minors over 12 years and adults), etc. Further information regarding progress on the Action Plan and Working Group will be published when it is available.