Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Autopsy Definition:

The post-mortem dissection and examination of an individual to determine the cause of death.

Related Terms: Pathology, Cadaver, Coroner

In E.O. Painter, the court described an autopsy as:

"... the post-mortem examination of a dead body by dissection to determine the cause, seat, or nature of disease."

In California Jurisprudence, 3rd Edition:

"An autopsy is a form of examination after death in which the body is examined and dissected for the purpose of ascertaining the cause of death and the nature and extent of injuries, disease or any other abnormalities in the body."

In Mega Life, the United States Court of Appeal noted this in regards to the term autopsy:

"Some definitions include only a comprehensive, internal examination ... (a) dissection of a dead body, so as to ascertain by actual inspection its internal structure, and especially to find out the cause or seat of disease (post-mortem examination), while others require only a post-mortem examination...."

In their 2002 article for the Australian Law Reform Commission, Skeens and Masters wrote:

"There are several reasons for performing an autopsy. The first is the best known – to determine the cause of death for the purpose of a coronial inquiry....

"Autopsies are sometimes done for other reasons. Doctors may want to check that the cause of death on the death certificate was accurate or to obtain more information about the condition of the deceased before death. Knowledge of the exact cause of death or the condition of the deceased before death may assist families. For example, if the deceased had a genetic condition, that would have implications for blood relatives. If there was an infectious disease, contacts could be warned. If the illness was industrial, that may lead to litigation or new occupational health and safety measures. And if the autopsy produces unexpected findings, hospitals may check their diagnostic and treatment procedures and make changes to avoid future errors.

"Autopsies are also very important in teaching. They provide the best means for doctors and nurses in training to view organs and tissue in the process of disease. Stored organs and tissue are also invaluable in later training and research. These types of autopsy are not performed without consent, either from the deceased before death or from the next of kin. The Human Tissue Act 1982 (Vic), for example, allows people to authorise an autopsy before they die and that is sufficient authority for the autopsy to be performed....

"This does not mean that the person – or the next of kin – can require that an autopsy be performed (for example to check the cause of death). Like any other medical procedure, the medical staff have a discretion and will perform an autopsy only if they believe it is appropriate. The only circumstances in which an autopsy can be compelled is where the coroner has jurisdiction and the Supreme Court, at suit of any person, orders an autopsy."


  • E.O. Painter Fertilizer v Boyd,  114 So. 444 (Florida, 1927)
  • Maess, Jean, editor, West's California Jurisprudence 3d. (Thomson-West)
  • Mega Life and Health Ins. Co. v. Pieniozek, 516 F. 3d 985 (2008)
  • Skene, Loane and Masters, Brenda, What Legal Rights do You Have Over Your Body After Your Death?, Australian Law Reform Commission Issue 81, (2002)

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