Autopsy, Organ or Body Donation, and Funeral Arrangements

  • Inquiries about autopsy, organ or body donation, and funeral arrangements are best discussed prior to death, because acutely bereaved families may be too distraught to address them rationally soon after a death.
  • The clinician may suggest that doing so might lessen the stress that usually follows death.
  • In certain situations, an autopsy will be required by law, as in cases where a coroner determines that death might have resulted from foul play (Sinard 2001).
  • Otherwise, inquiries about autopsy or organ donation, where appropriate, should be presented as options (Schneiderman 1985, MrPhee 1996, Sinard 2001).


Suggestions for inquiring about autopsy and organ donation are below:

Inquiries about Autopsy or Organ Donation

Present autopsy or donation as an option:

  • Inquire regarding prior discussions, understandings, and plans
  • Indicate that autopsy can be limited to certain parts of the body
  • State that the person’s remains will be treated with respect
Identify potential benefits of autopsy:

  • For family – Better understanding of what led to death, possibly resolve lingering questions about therapeutic choices or underlying illness, and learning about diseases with possible genetic implications for family such as dementia, heart disease, and cancer
  • For society/other individuals – Benefits of organ donation and expansion of medical knowledge.
  • For clinicians – Better understanding of patient’s illness, resolution of lingering questions and furtherance of clinician education
Anticipate and address possible family concerns:

  • Personal or cultural objections
  • Disfigurement of body and disposition of remains
  • Delay of funeral or burial services (problematic in some cultures)
  • Expense (if autopsy must be paid for)
  • Potential impact of the autopsy results on the family (if findings might be surprising or disturbing, such as identification of a genetic disease)
Explain plan for communicating autopsy (or organ donation) results following performance, indicating when and how family will be informed


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