History, Department of




Date of this Version

November 2001


Published in The Oxford Companion to the Body, edited by Colin Blakemore and Sheila Jennett, Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York, 2001, pages 58–59. Copyright © 2001 Oxford University Press. Used by permission.


An autopsy is a standardized biomedical procedure during which trained medical pathologists examine the exterior of the body, dissect the corpse, view the vital organs for any obvious abnormality and weigh them, and collect specimens of tissues and fluids for further analysis. The procedure takes 2-4 hours and ends with the body being prepared either for storage until it can be released, or to go to the undertaker for embalming and burial or cremation. After additional laboratory work on the tissues and fluid specimens to detect the presence of drugs and/or coexisting medical conditions, the pathologist forms an opinion on the cause of death.

As important as autopsies are in the abstract for law and medicine, they will continue to carry important cultural and emotional meanings as humans face the deaths of relatives and friends.

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