Autopsies: Part 2 of death, dying and dissection

Disclaimer: Sensitive material. Please read with caution. All views expressed are mine. This is not meant to be an educational piece but simply a sharing of my opinions and experience with autopsies. 

Note: In the following discussion I am talking only about autopsies which are required by law. Personal autopsies and hospital related autopsies are slightly different. The laws around it are different as are the circumstances in which they are conducted. For more information on autopsies, please click here

Autopsies are rare. They don’t get done for everyone who has died. Having an autopsy means that the professionals are suspicious of the cause of death or simply they hadn’t seen the person in the weeks preceding death. Thus meaning that they can’t confidently say that ‘yes X is the cause of death’.

Autopsies are inherently violent. Even if they are done in a fairly warm, well lit room with people who are chatty and smiling. The concept of opening up the body and extracting the organs for examination is nothing short of violent.

Autopsies are sombre in concept. After all an autopsy is only done if the cause of death wasn’t ‘natural’ or ‘obvious’ enough.

Autopsies are a legal requirement. (Please see note at top of article) After the case of Dr. Shipman (read more about that here), UK law decided that the exact cause of death for every body must be recoded. Dying is no longer just a social or private affair. The government wants to know why you died. As if paying taxes wasn’t enough! But they’re not doing it to be mean. It is done because the cause of death might have been malicious. Murder and violent crime resulting in death might have occurred and working that out is paramount in ensuring the safety of our population.

I understand the reasons behind autopsy perfectly well. Of course we should know what caused the death – even if there is 99% chance that it was not malicious, we should make that 100%. However, that feeling of ‘this is wrong’ couldn’t escape me. And it was a different kind of ‘this is wrong’ to when I did dissection (to read more about my experience with full human cadaver dissection, click here). With dissection I felt uncomfortable knowing that it was not just a body but had once been a living, breathing, talking and walking human being. On the autopsy table, the dead human was the same. Sure I felt uncomfortable knowing that it was a dead human (and by the way that was my first time seeing a dead human before the process of embalmment had begun).

However there was a fundamental difference. As murky as ethics is in this scenario, I had the comfort of knowing that the cadaver had donated their body. With full consent and with the knowledge that it was going to enhance somebody’s education and learning. With an autopsy, the person was long dead before consent could be taken. (unless the autopsy was a hospital autopsy in which case the law is a bit different – see note at top of article) You could argue that they are dead, why do we need consent. But that is the whole point. Should our wishes and wants from our living life not carry on through death? Or does a physical state of being now change the dead’s legal rights?

On one hand we talk of dignity and respect and on the other we are stripping away every ounce of dignity and respect whilst conducting an autopsy. Even more so, I felt very uncomfortable doing dissection but I felt like I belonged there.After all, the whole point of dissection was to learn. With the autopsy, learning was a secondary aim. The first was the legal aspect of knowing the exact cause of death. Whilst the two pathologists worked on the body and talked to us through the microphone so that we could here them , I felt a strong sense of not belonging. As if I was intruding on a private affair. And surely I was? Isn’t dying a personal, private event? Isn’t the cause of somebody’s death inherently a personal matter?

Whilst these thoughts whirled around my head, the sad reality and shortened life of the human being discussed dawned on me. If that human had known that her apparent alcohol abuse would lead to a premature death (I say apparent because that was why the autopsy was being done) and a consequent autopsy with a room full of people – would she still have done the same things in her life? I wonder if any of us really think about what happens to our physical body once we have moved on. I certainly do now. And I sure hope that I don’t become victim to any violent or unnatural death because there is nothing natural about an autopsy and I wouldn’t want it done on me.

But as the law says: Better safe than sorry. We don’t want to take risks and ultimately the safety of the living takes priority over the rights of the dead.

On an academic note: the actual process of conducting an autopsy is very logical. methodical and a genuine learning point. I will certainly endeavour to return.

Final thoughts: Both dissection and autopsies part from leaving the ‘dead undisturbed’. Both evoke strong feelings in me – good and bad but both made me think carefully about our society and in particular how we view death in our society.

If you have something you would like to say about this topic please comment and let me know! Thanks for reading





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