A coroner decides whether a post mortem should be done to find out what caused the person’s death. A post mortem is also known as an autopsy.
A pathologist (a specially trained doctor) usually completes a full post mortem by examining the body internally and externally. It is similar to a surgery.
For a lesser post mortem, the pathologist only examines the body externally or a particular part of the body or sometimes it involves taking a small sample of blood or urine, for example.
There is no cost to the family if a post mortem is carried out.
Where the post mortem will be carried out
A post mortem is usually carried out at the nearest hospital that has a mortuary and a pathologist.
If the person has died in complex or suspicious circumstances the post mortem should be carried out by a forensic pathologist at the nearest forensic mortuary. This may be in another part of the country.
How long it takes
The pathologist will try to do the post mortem as soon as possible – usually the next working day. Sometimes it can take up to 2 or 3 days.
You might be able to be near the person at the mortuary
If the coroner decides to direct that a post mortem be completed, you might be able to view or be near the person at the mortuary if the coroner says it’s okay. Please tell the duty coroner’s office if you want to request a viewing, or to stay near the body while it’s in the coroner’s custody.
Cultural and spiritual considerations will be taken into account by the coroner when they make their decision. You can ask for someone like a church minister or spiritual advisor to represent you at the viewing. Please talk to the duty coroner’s office for more information.
What happens after the post mortem
Post mortem report
Straight after the post mortem, the pathologist will provide a provisional report which is only for the use of the coroner. This provisional report will give a provisional opinion on the cause of death and will say if the pathologist has kept any body tissue samples for testing, what the samples are and if the testing will destroy the samples.
The pathologist will then send the coroner a final report. It can take several months or longer depending upon the complexity of the post mortem examination, including any tests of the tissue samples.
The coroner will use the post mortem information to decide whether or not they will open an inquiry, if they haven’t already done this.
A representative from Coronial Services will pass this information on to you. You can ask for a free copy of the final report. You might not be able to have a copy if it’s part of a police investigation.
The report might include upsetting details and complex medical language, so you may want to discuss it with your family doctor.
Body tissue samples
Coronial Services will also let you know how to ask for the return of the body tissue samples, if that’s what you want.
When the body is released to you
After the coroner has said the person can be released from the mortuary, you can organise to have them picked up and plan the funeral.
This is usually later in the day of the post mortem. It might take 2 or 3 days if the death was suspicious or the medical examination is complicated.
You can ask a funeral director to pick up the body and organise the funeral or you can do it yourself:
- Find a funeral director in the Yellow Pages or on Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand(external link) or New Zealand Independent Funeral Homes(external link)
- Find out more about organising the burial or cremation yourself on the Department of Internal Affairs website(external link)
You should try to do this as soon as possible, so you can be ready to pick up the person from the mortuary as soon as the coroner releases the body.
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