Post-Mortem Examination

​What is an autopsy?

This is sometimes called a post-mortem and is a type of medical procedure performed by a pathologist. The pathologist will carry out an external and internal examination of the body, treating the body with respect at all times.

It is often difficult to grasp that decisions about your child’s body must be made so soon after death. Having to comprehend and discuss a post-mortem examination of your child’s body can be too painful to endure. At the same time, be aware that a post-mortem may provide vital information that will help you come to understand the reasons for your baby/young child’s death.

“I wanted to understand why my baby died and, at the same time, I didn’t want anyone to touch her body.”

“Maybe at the hospital there should be someone that you can call who can say: ‘I know that this probably makes no sense to you now and you are probably not even listening to me, but here is something that you need to read when you get home and have time, or give it to a loved one to read to understand what is going to happen next so they can explain it to you.’”

During a post-mortem, the baby/young child’s body is examined to reveal a possible cause of death. This examination very often includes a surgical procedure, which is performed by a pathologist, where incisions are made in the baby’s body to enable examination of internal organs. Following the examination, the incisions are stitched. It is important to be reassured that an autopsy is an operation carried out by a pathologist with the same care as an operation on a living person.

You may have concerns about how your child’s body will look after the autopsy. Medical and nursing staff will be able to accurately describe the position of the incisions on your child’s body. You may request to see your child dressed, so that the incisions are covered, or you may feel it is important to see what has happened. That decision is entirely up to you. Be reassured that the people at the Coronial Services Centres who look after your child will do so with great care and respect.

After the autopsy, you are able to see, touch and hold your baby/young child. For many families, touching one’s child is an important part of the grieving process, and the court will work with families to facilitate this.

“Going in to the Coroner’s and seeing her the day after she died wasn’t as bad as I had thought. I had visions, from TV, of Sian being laid on a slab. She WAS cold, she was freezing and she was on ice and she still had the tube in her little mouth. The guy warned us about that. He stayed, he wasn’t allowed to go. That was another thing, too, you didn’t actually have any private time.”

“We felt like we had to hurry because he was standing there, it was Mother’s Day, and all I wanted to do was just sit and be with my daughter. We were allowed to touch her but she was just so cold. When we went into the Coroner’s the next day, they were very good. I took in pyjamas and her Wiggles blanket and I said to them, ‘Please can you dress her in these and wrap her in this before the Funeral Director picks her up. When you are finished doing what you are doing, can you please dress her?’ and they did.”

Who Decides On An Autopsy?

The coroner makes the decision regarding whether to conduct an autopsy after considering the wishes of the senior next of kin and any information provided by police, pathologist or other scientist.

The autopsy may be undertaken at a Coronial Services Centre or a regional hospital. Babies and young children are returned to their families or the nominated funeral director, often within 48 hours. The Coroner has to establish the cause of death and to do this, he/she must find out the circumstances surrounding the death so as to distinguish between natural and unnatural deaths, accidental and non-accidental deaths. It is the Coroner’s duty to investigate all sudden and unexplained deaths. The fact that a post-mortem examination has been done and the Coroner has looked into each death is a safeguard against any possible doubt or criticism of the parents, the family, or whoever was looking after the child at the time. Understandably, this can be a very distressing time. You might find it valuable to spend time discussing the examination with your doctor or hospital social worker. They can also provide information and brochures about post-mortem.

“In conversations at the Coroner’s, we would always use speaker phone and have Jacqui’s sister sit there and take notes. She would write down specific terms so if we wanted to back track on anything, we could Google a term to learn more about it.”

Objecting To An Autopsy

Anyone can write a letter to the Coroner, within 48 hours of the death, to object to an autopsy being performed. There may be cultural, religious or other reasons for objecting.

“We were asked if we wanted to have an autopsy and we said ‘No’. Because our brain didn’t really work, and we were shocked, the only thing we could think of was, we don’t want X’s body to be cut.”

“However, after a while it became a big issue to my wife. She always thinks that she wants to know exactly what happened. It is bothering her all the time up till now. I don’t know when this wondering will be ending.”

“If you don’t know why your baby died, I don’t reckon you can go through life without knowing.”

“We absolutely wanted an autopsy. We went into the coroners and saw her the next day. We knew we could do that because they told us at the hospital that we could.”

Waiting For Results

A Funeral Director can be contacted as soon as a child has died, without waiting for the Coroner to release the child after the autopsy. As soon as any medical procedures are completed, the Coroner can authorise the release of the child to the chosen Funeral Director or to the parents, if so desired.

It may take many months for the full post- mortem results to be released, and this can often complicate the grief process. One parent might blame the other or themselves in the period before getting the full picture. It can be helpful to ask a professional to explain the post-mortem results, as they are often couched in scientific and medical language. This is also a time when children can find it difficult to understand what is happening. It is important to talk openly and honestly to them.

It can be helpful at this time to liaise with a Funeral Director, to begin the process of thinking and discussing how you may say goodbye to your baby/child.

Organ Retention

Occasionally, as part of the autopsy, it is necessary to retain whole organs such as the brain or heart, or larger portions of tissue for medical tests to help further investigate a death. This subject can be quite a challenge to a parent’s belief system. For example, some parents cannot envisage their child being at peace if they are not bodily whole, while others may view the body as a physical container, serving a purpose only in life.

Agencies such as Red Nose Grief and Loss, Sands and The Compassionate Friends are sources of valuable support for families confronting the issue of organ retention.

“Sam’s brain was being studied for a long time by the Coroner. The funeral director wanted permission to take possession of his body and to combine him with his brain when the study was finished but we chose to keep him with the Coroner so as not to separate him even more than necessary. This also meant that his body wasn’t with us at the funeral. Some people thought this was strange but I didn’t like the idea of his body being there incomplete without his brain.”

Tissue Donation

The court can facilitate contact with the Donor Tissue Bank in your state if you would like to consider consenting to tissue donation, for example, heart valves, skin, bone and corneas. Organ donation usually takes place in a hospital.

“We had questions at one stage about whether we could donate her organs or some tissue, and we really wanted that to happen, but because of what she had, she couldn’t donate anything, which was upsetting to us.”

“Although our little girl had died and grief consumed our hearts, I remember my partner and I looking at each other and thinking that we would never want any other parents to go through what we were feeling. If we could donate to help another child, we would, even though this was confronting to think about.”

This article was prepared using extracts from Your Child has Died: Some Answers To Your Questions.1 The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.

Last reviewed: 20/6/24