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?
A post-mortem may be requested by either a coroner or a doctor. A coroner (an independent judicial office holder who investigates unexpected deaths) 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. A doctor may ask for a post-mortem to find out more about an illness or for medical research.
What happens in a post-mortem?
The pathologist opens the body and examines the organs. They may take samples or 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 (for example where drugs or poisons are involved).
The body is treated with utmost respect and is not disfigured in any way.
As next of kin, will I be asked for my permission?
- If a coroner has ordered the post-mortem, they do not need to ask permission from the family or next of kin, because they have a legal duty to investigate certain types of death.
- If a doctor wishes to do a post-mortem, they will normally ask your permission. They will discuss the procedure with you and ask for your consent to remove particular organs. They will also ask how you would prefer them to dispose of the organs afterwards.
Will the post-mortem delay the funeral?
Not usually. A post-mortem normally takes place within a few days of death. Following the examination, release papers will be issued and you can make arrangements for the funeral.
However, 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?
You must wait to register the death until the coroner’s office has received the results of the post-mortem. Once the results are available, you can get a death certificate and register the death with a registrar of births, marriages and deaths. Read more about death certificates.
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.
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 of limited scope.
In general, the coroner will agree to requests for organ donation where possible, as organ donors save the lives of countless people each year. Read more about body and organ donation in Ireland.
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) looked at post-mortem practice in Ireland (including organ retention) in relation to children who were born alive but died aged under 12 between 1970 and 2000. View the Madden Report on Post Mortem Practice and Procedures and its recommendations (pdf).
In response to this report, the HSE has published Standards and Recommended Practices for Post Mortem Examination Services.