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When a person dies, doctors may still have some questions.  When this happens a coroner may be contacted or the family may be asked to give consent for an autopsy. At all times the deceased is treated with dignity and with careful attention to privacy, while respecting family, cultural and religious requests.

Why perform an autopsy?

The primary reason is to answer questions that the family or doctors may have about the illness, cause of death or other conditions affecting the health of the deceased. At times autopsies may not always provide the answers. In some cases the purpose may be to explain conditions with a hereditary risk to others family members of the deceased. The autopsy may also provide further medical knowledge for member of the medical community.

Who Can Request an Autopsy?

  1. A coroner may order an autopsy if there are medical or legal questions to be answered. This is called a Coroner’s Autopsy. A coroner has the legal authority to order an autopsy and consent from the family is not required.
  2. Private autopsies, requested by the family are not provided at the BCHS, however the primary treating physician may request an autopsy if there are unanswered questions about the illness, cause of death or other conditions affecting the health of the deceased. This is called a Hospital Autopsy. Consent from the immediate next of kin is required for a hospital autopsy to be performed.

Who Can Give Consent For an Autopsy?

Consent must be given by the family member or responsible person in the order listed under ‘Who Can Request an Autopsy’ (above). The consent form requires a witnessed signature from the most responsible family member. In some instances telephone consent may be obtained.

Who does the autopsy?

A hospital autopsy is performed at the Brantford General Hospital by a Pathologist who is a medical doctor with added training in the examination of the body, including microscopic examination of small pieces of tissue and/or fluids. Autopsies requested by a Coroner are performed offsite at a regional centre by pathologists specifically trained and identified by the government to perform Coroner’s cases.

Are there different types of autopsies?

Autopsies may be of two different types, a complete autopsy or a restricted autopsy. Private autopsies, requested by the family are not provided at the BCHS.

A Complete Autopsy:

A complete autopsy is an external and internal examination of the body after death and includes surgical techniques. This examination requires a comprehensive assessment of all parts of the body, including external surfaces and internal cavities including the chest, abdomen, pelvis and head. Incisions are necessary however, they are made in places which can be easily be covered by the funeral home so than an open casket can still occur.

A Restricted Autopsy:

A limited or restricted autopsy may be performed when there is a desire to examine a specific organ or system only. For example if someone dies of liver disease, the family may ask that the autopsy be limited to a detailed examination of the liver for diagnosis with no disturbance to the rest of the body. This type of autopsy will limit information obtained only to the organs examined. No comment can be made about tissues or organs for which no consent is received.

Can organs and tissues still be donated if there is an autopsy?

Yes, however, in coroner’s cases, permission from the Coroner is required. The hospital or the Coroner’s office works closely with the Trillium Gift of Life Network to honour the decision of patients and their families to donate. If the Coroner requests an autopsy, organ and tissue recovery occurs before the autopsy is performed. In hospital cases, organ donation is possible and would be done prior to the autopsy.

Organ Retention:

In a hospital autopsy, it may be necessary to retain whole organs for a more comprehensive examination; for example when a specialist opinion from a Pathologist at another centre is necessary. This does not happen often and the family will be informed of this situation. If a family requests, the organs may be returned to the funeral home for reunification with the body but this may result in a delay in the final burial or cremation, or added costs to the family if these tissues are returned after the burial or cremation of the body has occurred.

Results of the Autopsy:

Hospital Autopsy:

Every effort is made to complete the final autopsy report in a timely manner however depending on the nature of the case and other circumstances, may take a few months to complete. The pathologist issues the report to the primary treating physician and the family physician.

Coroner’s autopsies:

The family must contact the investigating coroner or Regional Supervising Coroner for the report or explanation. The reports may also take several months to complete.

Regional Hamilton Supervising Coroner’s office telephone # 905-546-8200

Funeral Arrangements:

Every effort is made to release a body for the family to have their services in a timely fashion. The autopsy should not affect the ability to have an open casket if requested. If there are special religious or cultural needs please make sure the doctor tells the pathology department. This is very important especially if time lines for completing the autopsy are shortened. On very rare occasions if there is a reason why the pathologist feels that an open casket cannot happen he or she will notify the doctor of the deceased.

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