As soon as someone dies, make sure that you immediately familiarize yourself with the organ donation and autopsy wishes of the deceased. Check to see whether the decedent had a notation on his or her driver’s license or a donor card, personal identification card, or other legally recognized document by which he or she indicated a desire to make an anatomical gift.
Sometimes the decedent will have told loved ones of this decision as well. If the decedent’s wishes regarding anatomical donation aren’t clear, and the possibility exists of using his or her organs for transplant, the doctors or other hospital staff will explain the available donation options to the family or next of kin.
Donation depends upon the family or next of kin’s assent; if they agree to have the donation made, the organs will be harvested and 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 school or other institution. The donation may be contained in a letter of intent located with the estate-planning documents.
If the decedent donated his or her remains, contact the institution and they’ll make arrangements for, and cover all costs of, transportation and eventual cremation. Most will return the cremated remains to the family, if desired.
Where the decedent’s death may have been the result of violence, foul play, or other unnatural causes, or for various reasons detailed in individual state laws, the state medical examiner can perform an autopsy, whether or not the family consents. In this case, 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 the possibility of medical malpractice (or for other medical reasons). 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 itself is concerned about a possible medical error, it sometimes requests that the medical examiner’s office do an autopsy so that a disinterested third party performs it.
Some religions frown on autopsies as desecration of the body. Although not all autopsies are avoidable, if the cause of death is obvious and there was clearly no foul play, you or your funeral director can request that an autopsy not be performed.