Is It Possible to Refuse an Autopsy?

Autopsies are performed in the state of California and across the country as a means of ascertaining the cause of death. There exist fairly strict parameters regarding the circumstances in which autopsies are undertaken. Understanding this reality, you may want to know if it is possible to refuse an autopsy.

Two Primary Types of Autopsies

Before diving into a discussion of when and how an autopsy can be refused, it is important to understand that there are two primary types of autopsies. First, there is what is known as a medicolegal autopsy. This is a type of autopsy that is performed not just for medical purposes but to accomplish a legal objective as well, like an autopsy that is part of a criminal investigation.

Second, an autopsy can be performed for a medical purpose alone. For example, if a person has had a long term illness, an autopsy might be recommended to confirm the cause of death.

Deaths Enumerated in California Statutes Requiring an Autopsy

The statutes of the state of California enumerate a number of types of deaths that require a forensic investigation, potentially including an autopsy. Deaths that require a forensic investigation in California include:

  • Violent deaths
  • Sudden deaths
  • Deaths deemed unusual
  • Deaths when deceased not been attended for 20 days or more
  • Deaths as the result of self-induced abortion
  • Deaths as the result of criminal abortion
  • Deaths by known homicide
  • Deaths by suspected homicide
  • Deaths as the result of a recent accident
  • Deaths as the result of an old accident
  • Drowning deaths
  • Fire-related deaths
  • Stabbing deaths
  • Gunshot deaths
  • Hanging deaths
  • Cutting deaths
  • Deaths by any other criminal means
  • Deaths by exposure
  • Deaths by starvation
  • Deaths by alcoholism
  • Deaths by drug addiction
  • Deaths by strangulation
  • Deaths by aspiration
  • Deaths by sudden infant death syndrome
  • Deaths associated with an alleged sexual assault
  • Deaths by a known sexual assault
  • Deaths in prison
  • Deaths by a contagious disease that may cause a public health hazard
  • Deaths by occupational injury, disease, or hazard
  • Deaths in a mental hospital operated by the state of California
  • Deaths in a hospital for the developmentally disabled operated by the state of California

Personal Objection to an Autopsy

If you maintain some sort of personal, but not religious based, objection to an autopsy, you need to set that objection out in writing and provide that to an individual that you designate to be your personal representative in regard to matters pertaining to your death and the disposition of your remains. If a proposal for an autopsy is made by an attending physician but not a county coroner, and if you’ve prepared a directive that you do not want your remains subject to an autopsy, your wishes are likely to be honored in this limited type of situation. Keep in mind that a written directive expressing a personal, non-religious based objection to an autopsy would not prevent a coroner from pursuing a medicolegal autopsy.

Religious Objective to an Autopsy

Some religions maintain doctrines object to autopsies. A summary of the positions of different religions when it comes to autopsies is helpful in providing guidance regarding this issue.

Orthodox and conservative branches of Judaism object to autopsies. The same holds true for the Islamic faith. In these cases, autopsies sought a healthcare provider or institution but not the coroner is not likely to be permitted. If the coroner seeks an autopsy of a person of one of these faiths, the next of kin or the personal representative of the deceased person can lodge an objection to the desired autopsy.

Initially, the coroner will determine whether the objection will be honored. If the coroner decides to deny the objection, the deceased person’s family or personal representative will then need to seek judicial protection for pursuing the objection in court.

If the coroner agrees to honor the objection, that is not necessarily the end of the pursuit of an autopsy. Because an autopsy may be desired to develop a criminal case, the district attorney may endeavor to override the decision of the coroner. This is also accomplished by seeking an order from the court.

Most Christian denominations do not have an intrinsic objection to autopsies in this day and age. This includes the major mainstream Christian faiths including:

  • Catholic
  • Episcopal
  • Baptist
  • Lutheran
  • Methodist
  • Latter Day Saints
  • Presbyterian

Although Christian Scientists do not permit medical intervention when it comes to illness and disease (as a general rule), that church doesn’t necessarily have an objection to autopsies.

Eastern religions and spiritual practices do not typically object to autopsies either. These include:

  • Shinto
  • Taoism
  • Confucianism
  • Buddhism

If you do intend to pursue a religious objection to an autopsy, you need to ensure that you document your desire with appropriate supporting materials associated with your faith’s position on post mortems. This holds true if you desire to prepare a directive regarding an autopsy. Providing documentation is also necessary if you are making the case to avoid an autopsy on a member if your family.