A post-mortem examination, also known as an autopsy, is a step-by-step examination of the outside of the body and of the internal organs by a doctor known as a pathologist. The examination is carried out at the direction of a coroner and is sometimes required to establish the cause of death. Techniques similar to those in surgical operations are used.

Post-mortem examinations may also include tests for infections (microbiology), changes in body tissue and organs (anatomical histology), and chemicals, eg medication, drugs or poisons (toxicology and pharmacology).

In Adelaide, the post-mortem is performed by a forensic pathologist at the Forensic Science Centre. In country South Australia, the post-mortem may be performed by a pathologist at a hospital in a large regional centre.

The post-mortem is conducted without unnecessary delay, usually within 48 hours (although it may be later if the death occurs on a weekend or public holiday). This is to enable the person’s body to be released to the family as quickly as possible so that appropriate funeral arrangements may be made.

If you require any further information in relation to a post-mortem examination, please contact the Social Worker at the State Coroner’s Office.

In most coronial cases a post-mortem is required to determine the precise cause of death with certainty. However, on some occasions the Coroner can determine the cause of death from the person’s medical history and the police report the circumstances surrounding his or her death.

One major benefit of a post-mortem is that it provides detailed information about the person’s previous medical condition prior to death and so gives an understanding of the various factors which may have contributed to their death. Even if the cause of death may seem clear, the person may have had a medical condition which was not apparent during their life.

This information may be very important for family members trying to come to terms with the death. From a medical point of view, if the person died from an infection or genetic disease, a post-mortem may provide valuable information for the other family.

Essentially, a post-mortem examination is ordered by a Coroner to ensure that he or she is able to deliver a balanced and accurate finding as to the cause of death.

Some body tissue and organs require specialised examination. This varies, depending upon the cause of death. In most cases, small samples of tissue are taken for further analysis. It may also be necessary to retain entire organs for a more detailed examination. This is strictly limited to cases where such retention is necessary to determine or confirm the cause of death.

These organs are retained until the pathologist indicates that all necessary tests have been completed. This may take a few days to several weeks after the initial post-mortem. In a very small number of cases it may take several months.

If an organ or organs are retained the Social Worker in the Coroner’s Office will attempt to contact the next of kin as soon as possible.

Because next of kin are not always easily contactable after a death, a letter will also be posted to your home address.

Retained organs may be returned for burial or cremation at a later date when the tests are complete, if the next of kin so desire. Alternatively, next of kin may choose to delay the funeral until any retained organs can be returned.

Next of kin must notify the State Coroner in writing within three months of the initial post-mortem of their wish for the return of any retained organs. If the State Coroner has not received a communication by the time the organs will be disposed of in a dignified manner.

If the family is advised that organs have been retained, it is important discussing these matters with the funeral director prior to finalising funeral arrangements. The funeral director will make all  necessary arrangements for the collection, and burial or cremation of retained organs.

The State Coroner should be advised immediately in writing of any objection to a post-mortem being conducted so that the post-mortem can be delayed whilst the objection is being considered.

Because the State Coroner has to bring down a finding as to the specific cause of death, it is his decision as to whether a post-mortem is conducted. However, the State Coroner will seriously consider objections raised by next of kin.

A copy of the post-mortem report can be made available to the next of kin of a deceased person, through your nominated medical practitioner. Your doctor can then explain the contents to you. If other special reports are done, for example toxicology, these can also be made available.

If you wish to receive a copy of the post-mortem report, write to the Manager, State Coroner’s Office. The letter should state your name and your relationship to the deceased. Also include the name and address of the doctor to whom you would like the report sent.

You may write at any time,  however, these reports may not be available for approximately sixteen weeks and, depending on what tests are required, it may take longer.

Once the State Coroner has received the report outlining the cause of death, the next of kin will be formally notified of the official cause of death, as well as the status of any investigation being undertaken for the Coroner. You will also be notified when a decision is made whether or not an inquest is necessary or desirable.

If you want to view any other documents relating to the investigation, you should speak or write to the social worker at the State Coroner’s Office.