A simple guide to the post-mortem examination procedure

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The post-mortem examination: a simple guide

Please accept our sympathies for your loss.

This leaflet explains what happens at a post-mortem and why your consent is required before an examination can happen. We appreciate that you may not want to be given a lot of detail at the moment, but if you do want more information, we would be happy to give you a more detailed guide.

Please feel free to ask questions at any time during or after the consent process.

What is a post mortem?
A post-mortem, also known as an autopsy, is an important medical examination that  aims to find out more about a person’s last illness and the cause of their death. There are two types of post-mortem:

• Post -mortem examinations required by the coroner, called ‘Coroners PMs. These are investigations required by law and do not require the agreement of a person in a qualifying relationship with the deceased.
• Consented post-mortem examinations, also known as a ’Hospital PMs’ which are requested by doctors or by relatives. Full signed consent must be given by person in a qualifying relationship with the deceased for this to be carried out.

A consented post-mortem cannot take place without the consent being completed.

If you are giving your consent for a hospital post-mortem, a doctor will issue a medical certificate of death before the examination so you can proceed with the arrangements for the funeral.

Patient Information

A simple guide to the post-mortem examination procedure

Why are post-mortems carried out?
Post-mortems are usually associated with establishing a cause of death. If you have been asked for your consent for a hospital post-mortem there is little doubt about the immediate cause of death, but it may help us to understand the exact disease process. Post-mortems are valuable for medical education and research. Examining tissue is one of the most important ways in which doctors learn about illness and how to treat it. Small tissue samples may be retained during the postmortem but only with your consent and these can be used to train medical students and to help experienced doctors continue to learn about new conditions, treatments and teaching.

With your consent, an organ (or part of an organ) might also be retained for use in medical research. Tissues/organs can only be retained at post-mortem with the consent of the person in a qualifying relationship with the deceased.

When do post-mortems take place?
The post-mortem will be carried out as soon as possible, usually within two to three working days.

Who carries out post-mortems?
Post-mortem examinations are done by pathologists, who are specially trained doctors; with help from trained technical staff and they take place in the mortuary.

A simple guide to the post-mortem examination procedure

What is involved?
A full post-mortem examination involves examination of each of the body systems including the brain and abdomen. You can give your consent for a limited hospital post-mortem if you wish which involves only one area, such as the lungs, being examined. To understand an illness or cause of death properly, the doctor will need to look at part of the affected organ under the microscope. To do this, small samples of tissue are taken from the organ (usually about 10mm across and about 5 mm thick). From these samples very thin tissue sections are prepared onto microscope slides. These slides are examined in more detail under a microscope.

What happens afterwards?
Usually the results of the examination will be available within about six weeks and a copy will be sent to your relative’s GP. You may wish to make an appointment to discuss the results with the hospital consultant. If any samples of tissue were retained during post-mortem for further examination the following options are available:
• All tissue slides taken are returned to the deceased before being released from the mortuary.
• Sensitive Incineration
• Retained in the hospital for possible future medical research
• Returned to you or your appointed funeral director

These options will be explained and discussed with you at the time of consent being taken.

A simple guide to the post-mortem examination procedure

What if I change my mind?
We understand that this is a difficult time for you and that things you were told during the consent process may be uncertain or unclear. We hope this information leaflet will help to clarify things for you but if you do have further questions or are uncertain about anything you have been told please do not hesitate to contact us at the mortuary on 01908 995828 or the bereavement office on 01908 996155.

Once you have signed the consent form you will be advised when the post-mortem is to take place, you have 24 hours to withdraw your consent. If you do change your mind and wish to withdraw consent please contact the mortuary on 01908 995828.