If it’s not clear why your friend or relative died, a post-mortem examination has to be carried out in order to determine the cause of death. We explain how it works and what to expect.

On this page you can find out:

1. Will a post-mortem delay the funeral?
2. Who can request a post-mortem?
3. Why might a hospital request a post-mortem?
4. What is a coroner?
5. Why might a death be reported to a coroner?
6. What if the coroner says there's nothing to investigate?
7. What happens if the coroner orders a post-mortem?
8. What happens after the post-mortem?
9. What if the coroner decides to hold an inquest?

What happens if a post-mortem is requested?

When your relative or friend has just died you may want to arrange their funeral or cremation as soon as possible. However, this isn’t possible if the the cause of death isn't clear or there are concerns that the death may be from unnatural causes. 

In these cases, the death has to be reported to a coroner who will decide if there should be a post-mortem examination (also known as an autopsy) of the body. This happens with almost half of all deaths each year, so it's quite common. You can’t arrange a funeral or cremation until the coroner has decided if a post-mortem is necessary and, if so, it’s been carried out.

The good news is that post-mortems are completed as soon as possible, usually within two to three working days of a person’s death, so there isn’t often a long delay in the body being released to the relatives.

Who can request a post-mortem?

Requests for a post-mortem can come from two different places:

  • Hospital
  • Coroner

Why might a hospital request a post-mortem?

Sometimes, hospital doctors ask for a post-mortem to provide more information about an illness or the cause of death, or to further medical research.

Hospital post-mortems can only be carried out with consent. Sometimes, a person may have given their consent before they died. If not, a person who is close to the deceased can give it.

These post-mortems may be limited to particular areas of the body, such as the head, chest or abdomen and this will be discussed with you when you're asked to give your consent. If you want to, you can arrange to discuss the results of the post-mortem with the doctor who was in charge of the deceased person's care.

What is a coroner?

A coroner investigates deaths from unknown and unnatural causes and deaths in custody. Coroners are usually solicitors, although a few are doctors. Most deaths are reported to the coroner by doctors or police officers, but anyone who is concerned that a death may not be natural has the right to inform the coroner.

In Scotland, each medical certificate of cause of death is independently checked by a team of reviewers. Also, the coroner is known as the procurator fiscal.

Why might a death be reported to a coroner?

It may sound dramatic to have a death reported to a coroner, but in fact any death where the deceased wasn’t treated by a doctor immediately prior to dying are automatically sent to the coroner. Some common reasons for deaths being reported to a coroner are:

  • cause of death is unknown
  • death was violent or unnatural
  • death was sudden and unexplained
  • the person who died wasn't visited by a medical practitioner during their final illness
  • medical certificate of cause of death isn’t available
  • the deceased wasn’t seen by the doctor who signed the medical certificate within 14 days (28 days in Northern Ireland) before death or after they died
  • death occurred during an operation or before the person came out of anaesthetic
  • the medical certificate suggests the death may have been caused by an industrial disease or industrial poisoning.

What if the coroner says there is nothing to investigate?

Not all deaths reported to the coroner result in a full investigation. For example, the coroner may decide that a post-mortem is unnecessary if a person was admitted to hospital with a major medical emergency. Similarly, the coroner can permit a doctor to issue a medical certificate of cause of death for someone who has been terminally ill at home and attended daily by a nurse, even if the doctor had not visited in the two weeks (28 days in Northern Ireland) before the death.

If the coroner decides that the cause of death is clear they issue a certificate to the registrar stating a post-mortem isn’t needed, provided:

  • The family is entirely satisfied that everything possible was done.
  • It was a natural disease process that caused the medical emergency.   
  • There were no procedural problems with the treatment.

What happens if the coroner orders a post-mortem?

If the death does have to be investigated, the first steps will be to gather background information, such as the deceased’s medical history and the circumstances of the death, as well as speaking with the immediate family if at all possible.

About one in four of deaths notified to the coroner lead to a post-mortem examination. If the coroner decides that one is necessary, it will be carried out by a pathologist - a doctor who works for the coroner’s office and specialises in finding the cause of illness.

A post-mortem examination is a careful visual examination of the exterior of the body followed by a detailed internal examination of all the major organs of the body in the chest and abdomen, together with the brain. You can’t object to a coroner carrying out a post-mortem, but you must be told when and where the examination will take place if you ask for it.

What happens after the post-mortem?

Once the post-mortem examination is complete, the coroner will release the body to be buried or cremated if no further examinations are needed.

  • If the body is released with no inquest, the coroner will send form 100B (also called the pink form) to the registrar stating the cause of death.
  • The coroner will also send form cremation 6 if the body is to be cremated.

What if the coroner decides to hold an inquest?

In about one death in ten, the coroner will hold an inquest into a person’s death. This can happen when the:

  • cause of death is still unknown
  • person possibly died a violent or unnatural death
  • deceased died in prison or police custody

An inquest is similar to a criminal court case, but with the difference that the coroner isn’t trying to establish who’s responsible for the death, only what the cause of death was.

If you’ve been told that the coroner has decided to hold an inquest, your relative’s body needs to be formally identified before it will be released for funeral. This means that it can take a few days longer before the body is released.

You can’t register the death until after the inquest, but the coroner can give you an interim death certificate to prove the person is dead. You can use this to let organisations know of the death and apply for probate.

When the inquest is over, the coroner will come to a conclusion as to why your relative or friend died and tell the registrar what to put as the cause of death.

For more information on coroners and inquests, see the UK Government's guide to coroner service in Useful websites when someone dies

More information

  • Registering a death: find out how and when to register the death of someone close to you, which you have to do by law before you can confirm funeral arrangements and administer the estate.
  • Choosing a funeral director: we tell your what a funeral director does as well as giving you advice on choosing a funeral director who is right for you at this emotional time.
  • Getting bereavement support: trained volunteers and professional counsellors can support you with your grief if you feel you need more help outside your family and friends.

Page first published: 31 December 2015
Next review due: 31 May 2017