If a post mortem examination is needed
When a death is reported to the office, the report is given to the Coroner to decide on the next step.
As explained in the previous section, the Coroner may be satisfied that the death is due to natural causes and take no further action.
If the Coroner decides it is necessary to investigate further, they will order a post mortem examination. This will happen if:
- The cause of death is clearly unnatural, e.g. following a fall or assault
- The cause of death is potentially unnatural, e.g. if it may be linked to surgery or exposure to asbestos
- The cause of death is not known. Even if the cause is likely to be natural, it is necessary to find out which disease or condition was involved.
- The deceased died in custody or otherwise in the care of the State
Where will the post mortem take place? Who will perform it?
There are two main hospitals in Manchester with post mortem facilities. Patients who die at Wythenshawe Hospital will have their post mortem performed there. Almost all other patients, including those who die at North Manchester General Hospital, Manchester Royal Infirmary or outside hospital, will have their post mortem at the Manchester Royal Infirmary. Patients who are very heavy will go to Wythenshawe Hospital, who have equipment suitable for larger sized people. A very few patients go to other nearby hospitals for specialist examinations as explained below. If your relative's body needs to be moved between hospitals, we will tell you beforehand.
All post mortems in this area are carried out by a Consultant Pathologist, or by a middle-grade doctor under the supervision of a Consultant. Pathologists are employed directly by the Coroner and not by the hospital where they happen to be based. This means that they are entirely independent.
We should inform you that relatives are entitled in law to send a representative to observe the post mortem. The representative must be a qualified medical doctor. In practice, this right is hardly ever used.
Specialist post mortem examinations
If there are suspicious circumstances or if a potentially unnatural death takes place in custody, the Coroner will order a forensic post mortem. This is a more detailed examination performed by a specially trained Pathologist. They take place at Royal Oldham Hospital.
Occasionally, the Coroner may ask a Pathologist who specialises in a particular organ, such as the brain or heart, to carry out the post mortem. We may transfer the body to another local hospital for this. If the Coroner has ordered a specialist post mortem on your relative, we will let you know and explain why.
What happens when the results come back?
When the post mortem is completed, the Pathologist will report the causes of death that they found to the Coroner. The Coroner will review the information and do one of two things:
- If the post mortem shows that the deceased died of natural causes, the Coroner will issue paperwork to allow the death to be registered and take no further action.
- If the post mortem shows an unnatural cause of death, or if the cause or death could not be found at this stage, the Coroner will open an investigation or an inquest. This is an inquiry which may be followed by a fact-finding court hearing about the circumstances of the death.
How long will it take?
When a post mortem is needed, we will call to inform you. Our next step is to order a summary of the deceased's medical history from their GP. This helps the pathologist interpret their findings, and we cannot order a post mortem without it. We rely on the GP surgery providing this promptly, and know that some surgeries close on a Wednesday afternoon. It takes 5-7 working days from the point we receive the GP summary, to be able to call you with the results of the post mortem.
If the post mortem shows a natural cause of death, we can release the body at the same time we tell you the results. If it shows an unnatural cause, or if we are waiting for lab results to clarify the cause, we need to have the body formally identified before we release it and this usually takes an extra day.
Results from specialist post mortems may take a little longer.
How will we communicate with you?
The next of kin will receive two phone calls from our office - one to advise that a post mortem has been ordered, and another a few days later to explain the results and what will happen next. We do not trouble relatives between those times unless it is necessary, but they are welcome to call the office with any questions.
If we are unable to trace or contact relatives after making substantial efforts, we may need to order the post mortem without notifying them.
Can I still view my relative's body/have an open casket?
The pathology technicians are very careful to make sure that the post mortem will not affect your relative's appearance. When the body is dressed and lying in the chapel of rest, there are no signs that the post mortem took place. Relatives who wash and dress the body themselves will notice some surgical stitches. Your funeral director will be able to give you advice on your personal situation.