How to Handle Organ Donation and Autopsy Decisions when Someone Dies
After someone dies, decisions about organ donation and autopsies require immediate attention. The family or executor of the estate must determine whether the decedent has already decided to make an anatomical gift. The decision about whether to perform an autopsy is another delicate decision. If violence or foul play is suspected, the state medical examiner may opt to perform an autopsy. The decedent’s family may also choose to have an autopsy performed.
As soon as someone dies, check the following legally recognized items to see if the decedent has decided to make an anatomical gift:
Notation on his or her driver’s license
Notation on his her personal identification card
His or her organ donor card
Any other legally recognized document
Sometimes the decedent has told loved ones of this decision. If the decedent’s wishes about anatomical donation aren’t clear and the organs can be used for transplant, the hospital staff may explain the donation options to the family. Donation depends upon the family or next of kin’s assent. If they agree to the donation, the organs will be harvested. The body will then be available for a funeral and burial or cremation.
Even if organ or tissue donation isn’t made, the decedent may have donated his or her body to a medical institution. The donation may be contained in a letter of intent included with the estate plan documents. If the decedent donated his or her remains, contact the receiving institution. The institution will arrange for, and cover costs of, transportation and eventual cremation. Most will return the cremated remains to the family, if desired.
The state medical examiner can perform an autopsy, whether or not the family consents, in the following situations:
When the decedent’s death may have been the result of violence or foul play
When the decedent’s death may have been the result of other unnatural causes
When individual state laws mandate an autopsy in circumstances that apply to the decedent’s death
In these cases, the medical examiner’s office bears the cost of the autopsy. On the other hand, the family may choose to request an autopsy when it suspects medical malpractice.
If the family wants to request an autopsy, it should inform the attending physician immediately. In the unlikely event the body has been transported to a funeral home, the family should immediately inform the funeral director so that embalming doesn’t occur.
The family bears the autopsy cost if it requests the procedure for suspected medical malpractice. If the hospital suspects a possible medical error, it may request that the medical examiner’s office do an autopsy.