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All About Autopsies: What, Who When and How

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Up to 10% of the deaths in the U.S. this year will involve an autopsy. Learn what an autopsy actually is, when it’s needed, who performs them and how.

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Most people have heard of an autopsy, but autopsies aren’t that common today. Since the early 2000s the annual autopsy rate has been between 5-10%. However, there’s been discussion about the country’s shortage of pathologists since the start of the pandemic. It highlights how important autopsies are for informing the medical community and helping bring closure to a person’s final chapter.  

What is an Autopsy?

Let’s clarify what the term autopsy means. An autopsy is a medical examination of a body after death to determine the manner and cause of the death. This is sometimes done strictly for medical purposes, and other times it’s for forensic purposes in an investigation. 

When is an Autopsy Needed?

Autopsies can be done for medical education or because there are questions surrounding the death. Each state creates their own laws for determining when an autopsy should be performed. 

The parameters for when an autopsy needs to be performed has changed over the years, which is why the rate has dropped significantly since the 1950s.

Today, autopsies generally aren’t needed unless the death was:

  • Unnatural 
  • Unexpected 
  • A homicide
  • By suicide
  • Caused by an accident

Autopsies are also needed when the cause of death can’t be determined or when physicians can’t certify the cause of death. 

Who Performs an Autopsy?

Who is in charge of performing an autopsy depends on where the death occurred. Each state passes its own laws regulating who can perform autopsies and determine cause of death. That said, the person does need to be a trained pathologist.

In Texas, county medical examiners perform autopsies. The same is true in California and many other states.

What Does Autopsy Certification Involve?

On TV an autopsy seems like a quick process that happens immediately after death, but that often isn’t the case. It can be a very meticulous process that takes time. Completing an autopsy involves a number of people across organizations. 

Autopsies typically involve:

  • Obtaining an autopsy authorization.
  • Medical examiner performs the autopsy.
  • Performing toxicology tests, as needed. 
  • Investigative procedures, as needed.
  • Starting the death certificate.
  • Releasing the autopsy reports to approved parties. 

How Long Does It Take to Get an Autopsy Report?

Waiting for an autopsy report can be difficult. The report contains vital information about a loved one, so it’s understandable that family members want the results back quickly. Unfortunately, it can take a long time to get the autopsy report. In most cases it takes at least a month, but it could take up to five months or more. 

Again, autopsy procedures vary by state and by county. How long it takes also depends on whether the autopsy revealed a clear cause of death and if further investigation is needed. The medical examiner may release preliminary results within 24 hours of completing the autopsy, but that’s not a given. 


No matter what the situation is surrounding the death, Green Cremation Texas can work with families to arrange cremation services. We can work directly with medical examiner offices to coordinate transport and ensure the process is expedited as efficiently as possible. Our team is available to help 24/7.

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