What is a post mortem?
A post mortem is also sometimes known as an autopsy. If the coroner decides a post mortem is necessary, it will be carried out by a forensic pathologist, who is a specially trained doctor. They will do a physical examination of the person’s body to find out exactly how they died.
Types of post mortem
- A full post mortem is similar to surgery and the person’s whole body is examined internally and externally.
- A lesser post mortem is when only the external body or a particular part of it is examined.
- Sometimes the coroner will take just a small sample of blood, urine, or tissue.
The post mortem is usually carried out at the nearest hospital that has a mortuary and a pathologist available. If the death has been in suspicious or complex circumstances the post mortem usually occurs in the nearest hospital that has a forensic mortuary - Auckland, Palmerston North, Wellington, or Christchurch. In this situation, the person’s body may need to travel away from their hometown and Coronial Services will organise this and cover all the costs involved.
You have the right to object to the post-mortem or ask for it to be done in a cultural particular way
The coroner recognises that immediate family and their whānau may have personal concerns about a post mortem. In this situation, there are some ways you can influence what happens. The only exception is if it is suspected that the death is suspicious in any way, such as caused by a crime. In this instance, a post-mortem cannot be objected to.
If you do want to object or make a cultural request, you must do this as soon as possible, within 24 hours
As a member of the immediate family and whānau, you can tell the coroner if you don’t want a post mortem or want certain cultural needs to be considered by the coroner. Tell the duty coroner’s office immediately by phoning 0800 266 800 and tell the police officer in charge of the investigation. The coroner will decide if they can grant your cultural request or not.
If the coroner doesn’t agree to your request, you will have 48 hours to appeal their decision to the High Court. Speak immediately with the coroner’s office or to a lawyer about the steps you will need to take.
For more information on objecting to a post-mortem, see pages 6-8 of Ministry of Justice publication, When Someone Dies Suddenly, or call us on 0800 842 846 (24/7) to be connected with a Support Worker.
See also Supporting a family's cultural and spiritual needs.
If the person’s death was due to a suspected crime
In these instances, such as a homicide, you cannot object to a post mortem. However, you can let police or Coronial Services staff know about any cultural considerations you may wish the coroner to consider. If this is what you want to do, tell the duty coroner’s office immediately by phoning 0800 266 800. Tell the police officer in charge of the investigation. It is always the coroner’s decision to allow this request or not.
Seeing the person’s body
Immediate family members can ask the duty coroner's office if they could view and spend time with the person’s body at the mortuary. This must be before any post mortem that the coroner may order to be done.
All viewings must be authorised by the office of the duty coroner. This is because the body remains the responsibility of the coroner until it is released to the immediate family or whānau. You can ask your Support Worker to help you arrange a viewing through the duty coroner's office, or contact their office directly by phoning 0800 266 800. (You can find your local office contact details here. )
Some hospitals have a family or whānau room for viewing, usually with a screen or window between them and their loved one. The family won’t be able to touch the body or remove items from the body. For cultural or spiritual reasons, families can sometimes sit in a dedicated whānau room until the person’s body has been released to them.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to view the person’s body. This is usually when they’ve been very badly injured. If this happens, it will be explained to you. If you wish, you can also talk to a funeral director of your choice about any other options there are for sitting with or viewing the person’s body after it has been released from the mortuary, or about following any specific cultural traditions you need respected at this time.
If you and your family and whānau decide to view the body at any stage, it can help to know that the person’s body will look different – eg. their facial features and skin colour are likely to have changed. This is normal but can understandably be unsettling for some people.
How long does it take?
Every effort is made to conduct the post mortem quickly, within 1-3 days. There can be delays for practical reasons, but they will always be kept to a minimum. It might take a bit longer if the death is considered suspicious or the medical examination is complicated. It will be explained to you why there are any delays, or you can ask your Support Worker to find out.
It can be hard not being able to be with your loved one, but rest assured they are treated respectfully by everybody involved in the coronial process.
When the body is released to the immediate family and their whānau
When the person’s body has been released from the mortuary to the immediate family, you can decide together what you would like to happen next. You may wish for family or whānau to collect the person’s body, or you may choose to call a funeral director to do this. (See below about the role of a funeral director.) After this, steps must be taken by the family and whānau to arrange a burial or cremation.
The post mortem report
After their examination, the pathologist will immediately prepare a report for the coroner stating what they think the provisional (unconfirmed) cause of death is. The pathologist will state if they needed to keep any body tissue samples for testing, what they are, and what will happen to them.
Your coronial case manager can tell you and immediate family about the provisional cause of death.
The final post mortem report will be completed and sent to the coroner once all the confirmed test results have been received. It can take several months or longer depending on how complex the post mortem examination and testing of samples needs to be.
How the coroner uses the post mortem report
The coroner will use the report to decide if an inquiry should be opened, if they haven’t already done this. You will be told if an inquiry is needed into the cause of death.
A post mortem report can be sensitive
Members of the immediate family are entitled to receive a copy of the post mortem report, unless it’s part of an ongoing police investigation. Your coronial case manager can let you know when the final report is available and get a copy for you and your family to read.
It’s important to know that the report might include upsetting physical details and complicated medical language that can be confusing to understand. You may choose not to read it. Some families and whānau find discussing the report with their doctor helpful.
Other useful websites and information
Coronial Services provide additional helpful information for families and whānau about what’s involved with a post mortem here.