Postmortem Examinations

A postmortem examination is the examination of the decedent by a Medical Examiner or Deputy Medical Examiner. Each of our Medical Examiners and Deputy Medical Examiners are board-certified forensic pathologists with specialized training and extensive experience in death investigation. These professionals will decide which type of postmortem examination may be required, according to national standards established by the National Association of Medical Examiners, to determine the cause and manner of death, to answer additional questions about the death, and, in some cases, to collect evidence. The procedures often provide crucial evidence to criminal justice agencies, and information regarding a death is often important for insurance claims, work-related compensation, or other death benefits. The examinations may also be of value in identifying inherited or familial diseases that may lead to early diagnosis and treatment of other surviving family members. When a postmortem exam is ordered by the Medical Examiner or Deputy Medical Examiner there is no charge to the family. Instead, this is paid for by the county in which the death occurred.

In most cases, the postmortem examination is performed the day following death. It is our goal to ensure that postmortem examinations are completed with integrity and in a timely manner to return the decedent to their loved ones. The release of a decedent may be delayed in cases where a scientific positive identification is necessary, as our office is required by law to accurately identify decedents under our jurisdiction. If this is the case, family can aid in this process by providing our office with information about hospitals or dental offices where the decedent may have been seen. In rare cases, a DNA comparison may be required to positively identify a decedent.

Once a postmortem examination is complete and the decedent has been appropriately identified, the decedent is then ready for release to the funeral home of the family's choosing. A decedent may only be released to a funeral home, so it is necessary for the family to decide on a funeral home to handle the arrangements as soon as possible to avoid any delay in release. 

Each decedent is treated with dignity and respect, and families are supported with compassion, courtesy and honest information to help them with their grief and to make appropriate arrangements. Generally, the cause and manner of death can be determined shortly after the procedure. However, there are cases in which additional testing is required and the cause and manner of death may remain pending until a final determination is made.

In some cases, it is necessary for the medical examiner to retain one or more organs or human parts so that special tests or examinations may be conducted to determine or document the cause, manner, and circumstances of death. Sometimes, the organ (such as brain, heart, eyes, or other organ) may need to be kept even though the deceased body has been released to the funeral home. When this occurs, the funeral and burial or cremation may occur before the medical examiner completes the examination of the retained organ. In such cases, the medical examiner will retain the organ for a minimum of 90 days. If no request is made by the family to obtain the organ, a disposition will then be made by the medical examiner sometime after the 90-day period. This is usually accomplished by incineration. When an organ is retained by the medical examiner, it is office policy to indicate in the autopsy report that the organ has been retained. It is the responsibility of the legal next-of-kin to contact the medical examiner if return of the organ is desired. In such cases, return can be coordinated with the funeral director who took care of the funeral arrangements in the case. Organs are retained only when necessary to facilitate proper examination. In most cases, no whole organs are retained.