How to obtain autopsy reports & results

How to obtain autopsy reports & results

What most of us know of autopsies comes from popular television crime dramas, with their super-sleuth forensics teams and equipment so cutting-edge it borders on science fiction. We’re spoiled by the convenient swiftness with which good-looking medical examiners obtain results, and the sheer volume of detailed information they get from the tiniest clues — so much so that some now decry a trend of unrealistic evidentiary expectations among jurors, dubbing it the “CSI Effect.”

Perhaps it’s time we looked at what actually goes on during an autopsy.

An autopsy is an examination of a dead body to determine cause of death , the effects or indications of disease or, in some cases, to identity the dead person. Forensic pathologists — physicians trained in the study of diseases and abnormalities — perform autopsies with the assistance of autopsy technicians (sometimes called “dieners,” from the German for “helper”) and autopsy photographers.

The type of autopsy most familiar from television and movies is the kind legally ordered by the state to resolve violent, suspicious or sudden deaths. However, autopsies are also performed for disease research and medical training.

Before conducting an autopsy, investigators gather all the information they can about the subject and the events leading to his or her demise, consulting medical records, doctors and family members and examining the location and circumstances of death.

External examination

The autopsy begins with a careful inspection of the body. This can help establish identity, locate evidence or suggest a cause of death. The pathologists weigh and measure the body, noting the subject’s clothing, valuables and characteristics such as eye color, hair color and length, ethnicity, sex and age.

Removing the subject’s clothes, they then examine the body, searching for gunpowder residue, paint flakes or other deposits, identifying marks such as scars or tattoos, or injuries. X-rays are sometimes used to reveal bone abnormalities and the locations of bullets or other objects, and ultraviolet light can help detect certain residues. Pathologists may also take samples of hair and nails at this time.

Throughout the autopsy, the pathologist records everything on a body diagram and in recorded verbal notes.

Internal examination

If a complete internal examination is called for, the pathologist removes and dissects the chest, abdominal and pelvic organs, and (if necessary) the brain. It is unusual to examine the face, arms, hands or legs internally. The cuts into the body produce little blood because without a beating heart the only blood pressure comes from gravity.

Prior to cutting, the torso is placed on a rubber block, extending the body’s arch and providing greater access to the chest and abdomen. If a brain autopsy is also planned, this block will be moved to support the head once the torso work is complete.

The pathologist begins the chest and abdomen autopsy by making a Y-shaped incision, the two arms of the Y running from each shoulder joint,to meet at mid-chest and the stem of the Y running down to the pubic region. This is one of the aspects of autopsies that movies and television shows get wrong, according to Dr. Ed Uthman, a Texas pathologist who has written a screenwriter’s guide to autopsies.

“The most common error is making the trunk incision wrong,” Uthman said. “On women, the two arms of the Y are supposed to curve around under the breasts , but in films, they invariably show them straight and above the breasts.”

“Also, in both sexes, they make the arms of the Y too short; they actually need to extend all the way up to each shoulder joint,” Uthman said.

The next step is to examine the organs in situ (in place), which means removing the rib cage. Using a saw or a rib cutter (similar in appearance to a small pruning shear), the pathologists cut along the boundary between the ribs and the cartilage connected to the breastbone. Alternatively, they might cut the sides of the chest cavity, leaving the ribs attached to the breastbone and removing the entire frontal ribcage as one chest plate.

The abdominal examination begins with a pathologist freeing the intestines by cutting along the attachment tissue with scissors or a scalpel.

If a brain autopsy is called for, the pathologist will make a cut across the crown of the head, from the bony bump behind one ear to the bump behind the other. He or she will then open the cranium using a special saw that cuts bone but leaves soft tissue unharmed.

Once each organ has been examined within the body, it is removed, weighed and examined in further detail. Sometimes organs are removed individually, a procedure referred to as the Virchow technique; other times, they are removed as a connected group, via the Rokitansky technique.

“I like the Rokitansky myself, because it frees up the body earlier, so the diener can get to work with the closing and cleanup,” Uthman said.

Organs, especially the brain, are sometimes placed in formalin for days or even weeks before the dissection is conducted. Formalin preserves organs while also granting them greater firmness, allowing for neater and more accurate dissections.

In particular, brain tissue benefits from fixation in formalin because its natural texture resembles soft gelatin or firm tofu. According to Uthman, a few weeks in the fixative lend the brain “the consistency and firmness of a ripe avocado.” Once removed, the lungs may also be inflated with fixative.

Tissue samples are taken from the organs, some of which may be also be sectioned, and stomach contents are frequently tested. Pathologists and lab technicians also test bodily fluids — urine, blood, vitreous gel from the eyes, or bile from the gallbladder — for drugs, infection, chemical composition or genetic factors, depending on the purpose of the autopsy.

Pathologists will preserve parts of any organs they dissect, particularly if they find something unusual or abnormal.

Reconstituting the body

Following examination, the organs are either returned to the body (minus the pieces preserved for future work or evidence) or cremated, in accordance with the law and the family’s wishes. The breastbone and ribs are also usually put back.

Prior to being sewn shut with the characteristic “baseball stitch,” the body is lined with cotton wool or a similar material. If the organs are to be returned to the body, they are first placed in bags to prevent leakage. The body is then sewn shut, washed and prepared for the funeral director.

Bodies that have undergone autopsy are still able to have open-casket funerals, even in the case of brain autopsy: A casket pillow will hide the cranial cut.

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Autopsy results are not public records, and are available only to those legally entitled to receive them.

Under chief medical examiner’s regulations, autopsy records are disclosable to surviving spouse or next of kin if certain conditions are met.

How do you get a copy of an autopsy report?

Request Report. Use this form to request a copy of an autopsy report from the District 8 Office of the Medical Examiner.

How long does it take to get a autopsy report?

Autopsies usually take two to four hours to perform. Preliminary results can be released within 24 hours, but the full results of an autopsy may take up to six weeks to prepare.

Are death records public in California?

California birth, death, fetal death, still birth, marriage, and divorce records are maintained by the California Department of Public Health Vital Records. Services provided by Vital Records include: Issuing certified copies of California fetal death and still birth certificates.

Can I obtain a coroner’s report?

If the post-mortem was requested by the coroner, the coroner or coroner’s officer will let you know the cause of death determined by the pathologist. If you want a full copy of the pathologist’s report, you can request this from the coroner’s office, but there may be a fee.

Are coroner’s reports public record?

The Public Records Office has made available an online index of more than 13,000 files from coroners’ inquests. The records are for the years 1969-1999 and include information on about 3,000 deaths in the Troubles. People can search a database to find out what files are held.

Can a family deny an autopsy?

Hospital autopsy. The immediate family has the right to refuse or agree to a hospital autopsy of the deceased. They may also choose to consent to an autopsy, but limit the extent of the examination. They can also decide whether or not organs or samples taken from the body may be kept for further study.

How are autopsy reports written?

A forensic autopsy is the examination of a body by a medical examiner with specialized training. If you are authorized, you may request a copy of the autopsy report, which is the written record of the medical examiner’s findings. We do not perform an autopsy on every case that comes into our office.

Are death certificates public?

Death Records. If you are not a relative of the deceased person, a letter or document from the office or agency that needs the death certificate must accompany the request. The Illinois Department of Public Health, Division of Vital Records offers two types of copies of death certificates.

Ask the experts

Who has access to the information obtained from an autopsy? Can this information (e.g. about hereditary diseases or conditions that may run in our family) be obtained by third parties?

Doctor’s response

The same rules of doctor-patient confidentiality apply to autopsy examinations as to medical records of living patients. This means that doctors are not allowed to reveal the results of an autopsy examination to third parties without the permission of the next-of-kin of the deceased.

In many medical centers, the autopsy report is first submitted to the physician who treated the patient; the treating physician then shares the findings with the family. The family (next-of-kin) is always entitled to receive a copy of the autopsy report. The hospital is not allowed to give out any information about an autopsy or to respond to inquiries about an autopsy from any third parties. Of course, the family may choose to share the information with anyone they wish, but they must give written permission for the hospital to release autopsy records, just as with any medical records.

If an autopsy is to be performed at a teaching hospital, the case may be discussed at teaching conferences, or the procedure or findings may be viewed by medical students and residents for teaching purposes. These individuals are also bound by the rules of doctor-patient confidentiality and may not disclose autopsy findings to third parties.

One exception to this rule is that results of autopsies performed for medicolegal investigations (those required by the coroner or medical examiner in cases of suspicious deaths) may be released to police or other authorities and may be discussed in court proceedings open to the public. In these cases autopsies may also be ordered by the coroner or medical examiner, and obtaining consent from relatives of the deceased is not required.

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Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care

“Investigations and Autopsies”
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Welcome to Erie County, NY

Erie County, NY Department of Health

Autopsy Report Requests

The information contained within an autopsy report is confidential and treated as a medical record.

The final report is available at no charge to the immediate and legal next of kin (spouse, adult child, parent, adult sibling or grandparent) by clicking on the Request for Autopsy Report Form.

If there is a request for a copy of the report from someone other than those legally entitled (e.g. insurance company or private attorney), the request must be submitted on their letterhead and include a HIPAA form signed by the legal next of kin. The request must be accompanied by a check for $40.00 (made payable to the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office).

Autopsy results and reports are NOT given out until the case file is complete. If the death was suspicious or the autopsy report contains sensitive material that could jeopardize a criminal investigation, there may be an additional delay before it is released.

Records & Reports

Autopsy Reports

Final Reports of Autopsy can take weeks to several months to prepare due to the detailed studies that may be performed during the autopsy procedure. All Final Reports of Autopsy are distributed to the State’s Attorneys Office per 18 V.S.A. § 505. In certain circumstances, such as cases in which there is an ongoing criminal investigation, the state’s attorney has jurisdiction over the distribution of the autopsy findings.

In compliance with the Privacy Rule of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner records are confidential and are released with the written consent of the legal next-of-kin or personal representative. As such, we require documentation that proves legal next-of-kin’s relationship and authority to act on behalf of the decedent. The priority of next-of-kin and documentation proving relationship is summarized as follows:

  1. The spouse of the decedent (marriage certificate)
  2. And adult son or daughter of the decedent (child’s birth certificate)
  3. Either parent of the decedent (decedent’s birth certificate)
  4. Adult sibling of the decedent (both decedents and sibling’s birth certificate)
  5. Grandparent of decedent (both the decedents parent and decedent’s birth certificate)
  6. An individual possessing Durable Power of Attorney (letter appointing Durable Power of Attorney from Court)
  7. Guardian of the decedent (letter appointing guardianship from the Court)
  8. Administration of decedent’s estate (letter of appointment from Court)
  9. Fiduciary of decedent (letter of Fiduciary from Court)

Families wishing to obtain a copy of the Final Report of Autopsy must complete the Authorization For Use and Disclosure of Health Information Form. The Authorization must be signed by the legal next-of-kin, include documentation proving authorization and submitted to the Office of The Chief Medical Examiner. The legal next-of-kin can direct our office to release the report to other family members, physician, insurance company, or other parties. Final Reports of Autopsy are technical, and we generally recommend that it be reviewed with a family physician.

Admin_OCME_Authorization Form.pdf

Death Certificates

For information on how to obtain a copy of a Vermont Certificate of Death, visit Vermont Vital Records

Ask the experts

Who has access to the information obtained from an autopsy? Can this information (e.g. about hereditary diseases or conditions that may run in our family) be obtained by third parties?

Doctor’s response

The same rules of doctor-patient confidentiality apply to autopsy examinations as to medical records of living patients. This means that doctors are not allowed to reveal the results of an autopsy examination to third parties without the permission of the next-of-kin of the deceased.

In many medical centers, the autopsy report is first submitted to the physician who treated the patient; the treating physician then shares the findings with the family. The family (next-of-kin) is always entitled to receive a copy of the autopsy report. The hospital is not allowed to give out any information about an autopsy or to respond to inquiries about an autopsy from any third parties. Of course, the family may choose to share the information with anyone they wish, but they must give written permission for the hospital to release autopsy records, just as with any medical records.

If an autopsy is to be performed at a teaching hospital, the case may be discussed at teaching conferences, or the procedure or findings may be viewed by medical students and residents for teaching purposes. These individuals are also bound by the rules of doctor-patient confidentiality and may not disclose autopsy findings to third parties.

One exception to this rule is that results of autopsies performed for medicolegal investigations (those required by the coroner or medical examiner in cases of suspicious deaths) may be released to police or other authorities and may be discussed in court proceedings open to the public. In these cases autopsies may also be ordered by the coroner or medical examiner, and obtaining consent from relatives of the deceased is not required.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

  • Penis Curved When Erect
  • Could I have CAD?
  • Treat Bent Fingers
  • Treat HR+, HER2- MBC
  • Tired of Dandruff?
  • Life with Cancer

Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care

“Investigations and Autopsies”
Public Health Law Program
Centers for Disease Control

Related Article

How to obtain autopsy reports & results

Fat-Burning Foods in Pictures: Blueberries, Green Tea, and More

Grapefruit, hot peppers, vinegar, and more appear on WebMD’s list of fat-fighting foods — along with surprising facts about how they may work.

Read more: Fat-Burning Foods in Pictures: Blueberries, Green Tea, and More