To many people, autopsy is a bad word. In part that's because people are squeamish about death and dying. But it's also because there are so many false beliefs about what goes on during a "post-mortem analysis."
Keep clicking as autopsy expert Dr. Richard Prayson, section head of anatomic pathology at the Cleveland Clinic, debunks 11 common myths about autopsy.
Myth: TV portrayals of autopsy are realistic
TV dramas often glamorize the autopsy process. For example, the doctors aren't wearing the sorts of protective gear that real-world doctors wear while performing autopsies. And while TV autopsies often show only a doctor or two, in the real world a team of workers are often involved in autopsies. And autopsy results can take a lot longer in real life than they seem to on television.
Myth: Autopsy means mutilation
Autopsies involve various incisions, but they can generally be "cosmetically reconstructed" so that there is no problem with an open casket funeral. The incision made to remove the brain is made in the back of the head and so is not visible when the body is lying in a casket.
Myth: Religion forbids autopsies
People often claim that their religion will not permit the autopsy of a loved one. In fact, most religions allow autopsies, though some impose specific requirements regarding timing, the presence of a representative of the faith, the disposal of body parts and fluids, etc.
Myth: Autopsies are obsolete
With MRIs and other high-tech diagnostic tools widely available, some people think there's no longer any need for autopsies. That's just not true. Even with all the new tools and techniques, 15 percent to 25 percent of autopsies yield unexpected findings.
Myth: An autopsy delays the funeral
An autopsy typically takes only two to four hours. There are cases in which funeral directors have complained of long delays, but these occurrences are rare.
Myth: Autopsies aren't worth the hassle
Autopsies have all sorts of potential payoffs. For one thing, they help improve medical care by alerting doctors and health authorities to diseases and other health problems that might otherwise go undetected. And they provide information that can improve consumer products (like child restraints), develop better prosthetics (such as heart valves), and provide valuable training for doctors.
Myth: No embalming is possible after autopsy
Sometimes a funeral director will have to work around the dissections made during the course of an autopsy. For instance, special effort may be required to infuse the embalming fluid if the autopsy has damaged blood vessels in or around the head and neck. But in general, embalming a body that has been autopsied presents no special problems.
Myth: Only doctors can request autopsies
Doctors can suggest that an autopsy be done. So can the dead person's next of kin. And coroners and medical examiners, of course, can order an autopsy if they suspect homicide or suicide.
Myth: Any kin can request an autopsy
Not just anyone in the family can sign permission for an autopsy. A strict hierarchy governs whose wishes take precedence. The wishes of a surviving spouse generally take precedence over those of an adult child or parent.
Myth: Most deaths lead to autopsy
In the 1950s, nearly half of all hospital deaths led to autopsy. Today only about 6 percent do. What explains the dramatic decline? Doctors and family members now seem reluctant to request request autopsies, and fewer doctors have experience performing them. Hospitals should be performing lots of autopsies as a way to ensure "quality control," but they often have little financial incentive to do so.
Myth: The family pays
An autopsy typically costs several thousand dollars. Hospitals generally cover the cost of autopsies of patients who died while in their care. Insurance companies and Medicare generally will not pay for autopsies.