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Autopsies have answers for family

The word "autopsy" brings many questions and misconceptions to mind. A good coroner endeavors to provide accurate and reassuring information on all aspects of an autopsy to the family. In the final section concerning the subject matter "Why Did My Loved One Die," I will try to clear up some of these concerns and/or misconceptions about autopsies.

The autopsy is more than just a cutting up or dissection of body parts and tissues in a laboratory. In the same manner that a physician completes an examination with a living patient by reviewing the person's medical history and symptoms to gather information needed to diagnose disease and to determine the method of treatment, a pathologist, along with a medical investigative team, reviews the deceased's medical history, laboratory and toxicology results and completes an examination of the body to identify the cause and manner of death.

The pathologist and team of medical professionals take great care to maintain the level of dignity and respect of the deceased as if he or she were their own loved one.

Autopsy means "see for yourself." It is a special surgical operation, performed by specially-trained physicians, on a dead body. Its purpose is to learn the truth about the person's health during life and how the person really died. There are many advantages to getting an autopsy. Even when the law does not require it, there is always something interesting for the family to know.

Under the laws of all U.S. states and most other nations, an autopsy can be ordered by the government. A pathologist is a physician with a specialty in the scientific study of body parts.

A coroner is a political position, while a medical examiner is a physician, usually a pathologist. Exactly who makes the decisions, and who just gives advice, depends on the jurisdiction.

When a loved one dies, a family can ask the hospital to perform an autopsy. This service has traditionally been free, with the hospital absorbing the cost (which is primarily in personnel time). If the family prefers, a private pathologist can do the autopsy in the funeral home. It does not matter much whether the body has been embalmed first. Regardless of where the autopsy is performed, there should not be a problem with an open-casket funeral afterwards.

In conclusion, I hope that I have been helpful in providing you information if you are ever faced with having to make a decision on whether or not to have an autopsy done on your loved one. It may be a difficult decision to make, however, if this decision could save the lives of your loved ones that are still alive, would you have it done? Think about it.

Michael Fowler Sr., CFSP, is president of the Georgia Funeral Service Practitioners Association and is a retired death investigation specialist/forensic pathology assistant with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab.