What is a post-mortem?
A post-mortem examination (also called an autopsy) is a medical examination
of a dead body to determine the exact cause of death. It is carried out by a
pathologist (a doctor who specialises in the nature and causes of disease).
When is a post-mortem necessary?
There are two types of post-mortem, one ordered by a coroner and the other by a doctor.
A coroner is an independent judicial office holder who investigates unexpected deaths. They will ask for a post-mortem in the case of a violent, sudden or unnatural death or as part of a criminal investigation, and may use its findings at an inquest.
If a coroner has ordered the post-mortem, they do not need to ask permission from the next of kin, because they have a legal duty to investigate certain types of death.
A doctor may ask for a post-mortem to find out more about an illness or for medical research. This can help the family of the deceased, by identifying inheritable issues, as well as more generally advancing medical care in the future.
If a doctor wishes to do a post-mortem, they will ask for permission from
the next of kin. They will discuss the procedure with you and ask for your
consent to remove particular organs.
What happens in a post-mortem?
The pathologist examines the outside of the body and opens the body and examines the organs. They will usually take tissue samples and more rarely may remove organs for detailed examination to establish the cause of death. In most cases they put the organs back, but may occasionally need to keep them for more tests.
When the pathologist is done with the samples they will be respectfully disposed of by the hospital. In most cases this will take place about four months later. It is possible instead to have the tissues returned to you for burial or cremation, and you should say that this is what you want to happen when the post-mortem is arranged.
The HSE has published Standards and Recommended Practices for Post Mortem Examination Services (pdf). This clarifies doctors’ responsibility to seek the consent of the family before retaining organs and lays out standards of communication for doctors to use with families.
Will the post-mortem delay the funeral?
Generally, it will not. A post-mortem normally takes place within a few days of death. You should not make any funeral arrangements until you have been told the date on which the body will be released. A post-mortem examination does not involve disfigurement of the body, which may be viewed afterwards in the same manner as if no post-mortem had been performed.
In some cases you may have to wait several weeks to see the results of the post-mortem.
When can I register the death after a post-mortem?
In the case of a coroner’s post-mortem, if the coroner decides that no inquest needs to be held, the Registrar of Deaths will be notified, the death will be registered and a death certificate will be issued. You will not need to register the death yourself, but you will still need to collect the death certificate. If the coroner decides that an inquest must be held the registration of death will be delayed.
While waiting for the post-mortem report, the coroner may give you an Interim Certificate of the Fact of Death. You may be able to use this instead of a standard death certificate as acceptable evidence for banks, insurance companies and other institutions, but you should check with each institution that it meets their requirements.
In the case of a consent post-mortem you must register the death at any office of the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages by producing a medical certificate stating the cause of death from the Doctor who attended the patient.
Read more about death certificates.
Can organ donation go ahead after a post-mortem?
If someone is a registered organ donor, but their death has to be reported to a coroner, the coroner and next of kin must give permission before organs can be donated. The coroner will decide the matter after consulting the Gardaí and doctors. Where the coroner grants permission for donation, the post-mortem examination will be limited.
In general, the coroner will agree to requests for organ donation where possible. Read more about body and organ donation in Ireland.