An autopsy is a detailed medical examination of the body conducted by a pathologist or government medical officer.
The coroner usually needs an autopsy to help determine how and why a person died.
During the autopsy, the deceased is treated with respect and great care to preserve their dignity.
The autopsy process
To release the body to the family as soon as possible, the autopsy is usually performed the next day and almost always within three working days.
Types of autopsies
The coroner can request an external autopsy, partial internal autopsy or full internal autopsy:
- external autopsy—a visual examination of the body. X-rays may be taken, and perhaps samples of blood, urine and other fluids for testing
- full internal autopsy—an examination of the body’s internal organs during which organs from the chest, abdomen and head are removed and examined
- partial internal autopsy—an internal examination of particular organs or parts of the body only.
The coroner decides what type of autopsy is needed based on the circumstances.
Testing and analysis
Samples of blood, fluids and tissue may be taken for testing and analysis.
Tests that may be performed include:
- toxicology—where samples of blood or urine are tested for poison, drugs, medication or alcohol
- histology—where small samples of tissue may be examined under the microscope for evidence of disease
- microbiology—where samples of tissue may be tested for infection.
The results of specialist testing may take up to several months, especially in complex cases. Once the doctor or pathologist receives all the results, they prepare an autopsy report.
Concerns about an internal autopsy
Before ordering an internal autopsy, a coroner must consider concerns raised by a family member or other person with sufficient interest.
If you have concerns about an internal autopsy, notify the coroner as soon as possible through the police or coroner’s office.
The coroner listens to your concerns and then decides whether to perform an internal autopsy. If they decide it is necessary, they must give you a copy of the autopsy order.
You can apply to the Supreme Court for a review of the coroner’s decision. You may wish to seek legal advice about this.
Obtaining the autopsy report
After all the test results have returned, the doctor or pathologist prepares an autopsy report for the coroner with their conclusions about the medical cause of death.
Family members or other persons with sufficient interest can write to the coroner to request a copy of the autopsy report.
It can be upsetting to read an autopsy report, as it contains graphic descriptions and technical medical terminology. You may wish to ask your doctor go through it with you.
Tissue and organ donation
Tissues such as heart valves, skin, bone and corneas (part of the eye) may be donated, depending on the circumstances of the death. Staff at the hospital or someone from Queensland Tissue Banking Program may discuss tissue donation with you.
Organ donation can occur only in very special circumstances. Staff at the hospital or someone from DonateLife Queensland may discuss organ donation with you.
Sperm from a deceased person for IVF treatment
Doctors and coroners can’t authorise the removal of sperm from a deceased person. Download the Guidelines for sperm removal from deceased persons for IVF fact sheet from the Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services website.
Releasing the deceased for funeral
The coroner releases the deceased person to the family for burial or cremation once they’ve been formally identified, and the autopsy and all testing is complete. The doctor advises the coroner that they don’t need to retain the body any longer.
If the coroner agrees, they release the body soon as possible—almost always within three days of the person’s death. They’re usually released to the funeral director chosen by the family to conduct the funeral.
Police must have the government-contracted funeral director transport the deceased to a mortuary. However, the family is not obliged use this funeral director to conduct the funeral.
If the deceased needs to be transported interstate or overseas, arrangements should be made with a funeral director, who will prepare the body and organise any required documentation.
If you have any complaints about the conduct or services of a government-contracted funeral director, contact the Director, Coroners Court. We will investigate your complaint and send you a response.