An autopsy is the cutting open of a body for the purpose of examining organs and tissues to determine why and how the person died, or who the person is. An autopsy may include chemical, histological (when a thin slice of tissue is examined under the microscope), microbiological and other investigations performed in a laboratory. An autopsy may include complex laboratory tests, so it may be some weeks or months before results are known.
Only a medical specialist (i.e. pathologist) can perform an autopsy. Autopsies can sometimes be performed even when we know when someone died, because what is learned through the autopsy will be helpful for future treatment or research purposes. When reasonable doubt about the medical cause of death exists, an autopsy may be authorized by the Medical Examiner as part of an investigation. During an investigation the medical examiner takes charge of the body, they may review past medical history, and may throw out the clothing of the dead person if it is dirty or damaged. Personal things of the dead person that are related to their death may be kept for the investigation or for the public fatality inquiry. These things may also be given to a police officer.
It does not cost anything to have an investigation of a sudden death and you don’t need the permission of the next of kin to do the investigation. When an autopsy is not necessary, an external examination will be done.
By law, autopsies are usually required if a death seems suspicious or unnatural, or occurs while a person is in prison or in a psychiatric hospital. Autopsies are also required if a dependent adult or a ward of Social Services dies while the person is a patient in a hospital, home, or in another institution. In Alberta a doctor, called the medical examiner, is responsible for the investigation of suspicious deaths. The medical examiner will usually decide if an autopsy must be performed.
If you think that someone may have died an unnatural death or under suspicious circumstances, you should call the police. The police will do the initial investigation and will tell the medical examiner what they find. Sometimes a hearing called a Public Fatality Inquiry (inquest) is held to review the circumstances of a death, to find out how the death occurred, and to make recommendations for improvements to reduce the risk of this kind of death in the future.
A Provincial Court judge will hold the public fatality inquiry—it is not a trial, but a fact-finding investigation where witnesses are called and evidence is presented. At the end of the inquiry the judge will write a report. You can see the report because section 53.1 of the Fatality Inquiries Act, 2005 says that a written report should be available to the public. In Alberta, the Fatality Review Board will decide whether or not an inquest should he held. The medical examiner may suggest that an inquest should he held, but the Board has the final decision. The Board is made up of a doctor, a lawyer, and another person from the community.
If you are called to be a witness at an inquest and you want to know what your legal rights are, you should contact a lawyer or the Legal Aid office. An inquest is not a trial but all the evidence that comes out during an inquest might he used in criminal or civil proceedings later on or may have other serious consequences for you. So you should only say what you know to be true and if you are unsure about something you should say so.
A Certificate of Medical Examiner is a document that says why and how the person died, and a brief description of the circumstances. It costs $15 to get this document. Insurance companies, banks or lawyers may ask for this document. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner will not give this document to any institution or person without the next of kin giving their permission in writing.
If an autopsy was allowed to be done by the Medical Examiner’s Office, a copy of the short version of the report or a copy of the detailed autopsy report are available. You can get the summary report for $15 and the detailed report for $40. If you are an adult next of kin to the person who died you can see the autopsy reports. If you are not an adult next of kin but have a written permission from the next of kin you can see the autopsy reports as well.
External Examination Report
If the Medical Examiner decides that an autopsy is not needed then the doctor will do an external examination. This report is available for $15.
If you want to contact the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Edmonton or in Calgary:
7007 116 Street NW
Canada T6H 5R8
Phone: (780) 427-4987
Fax: (780) 422-1265
4070 Bowness Road NW
Canada T3B 3R7
You can call this office toll-free from anywhere in the province by dialing 310-0000.
Contact the Government of Alberta. If you have a question about autopsies you can call the toll-free province-wide comment line at 310-4455.