No, I don’t mean the entire procedure. I mean what you can expect when you make a funeral arrangement for someone who has been autopsied.
Different counties and states have different methods of performing an autopsy. Most people know the trunk of the body is split open with the classic Y incision, but most autopsies include an incision in the scalp and cranium as well, and the appearance of this incision will vary according to the pathologist. That is important to consider when it comes to the viewing.
Many pathologists do not give regard to a person’s appearance or their family’s preferences when they cut, so they will often shave the head where they make the incision. This means if the decedent had long hair or a distinctive style, the family may need to arrange for a wig, hairpiece or scarf. A professional hairdresser should be consulted if necessary. Sometimes, the cut is made with no hair being shaved, but in those cases some ends up getting lost in the suturing process.
Likewise, an incision in the scalp cannot be hidden if the person was bald. I can hide embalming incisions made along the collarbone with certain suturing techniques and special cosmetics, but autopsy incisions are a lot deeper and can’t be covered. This means that a person accustomed to low-cut garments may have to be viewed in clothing that is not their style or the style you are used to seeing on them, and a bald person will need a hat or scarf.
Some pathologists cut into the spine and up the back of the legs. A body that has been cut this extensively may need to wear special plastic garments under the burial clothing, and since these garments are usually one-size, clothing a few sizes larger might be necessary. I like to inform families if I have used these garments because most people will touch the arms and shoulders of the body in the casket and might wonder what is under the jacket.
After embalming, all the organs, including the brain, are returned to the body cavity and are just stuffed wherever they will fit. This usually results in a distended abdomen, another reason for needing larger clothes.
Embalming and repairing an autopsied body will take several hours, and sometimes a day or two of follow-up work is necessary if there is trauma or decomposition as well. Keep this in mind when you meet with the funeral director; you probably can’t see your loved one “right now.” Maybe not even tomorrow.
Due to the extra time and chemicals involved, embalming an autopsy will cost more; I’ve seen anything from an extra $100 to an extra $500.
No matter how many chemicals and plastics are used, there is always a chance an autopsied body will show some leakage at the incision sites, so if you are having a viewing lasting several days, the embalmer will probably be there on a daily basis making adjustments as needed.
Autopsy results are never released to the funeral home, and the funeral director has no control over when the autopsy can be performed or when the results will be made available to the family.
Someone asked me today if the medical examiner removes breast implants. I have never known them to do so; however, if the implants were damaged during a traumatic death, it’s possible. (I’ll find out tomorrow…) However, if a body part is removed or damaged, we can create the appearance of it still being there. Some states, including mine, remove the throats, and I have to remember to create a fake throat before I sew up the body. (I use some wadded cotton.)
Because of the time between the death and receiving the body, occasionally the arms will not remain in the typical folded position we like to see in the casket. Sometimes I will have to position the arms at the sides, or I will ask the family to provide a favorite book, blanket, stuffed animal or framed photo to put on or near the hands to take the focus away from an unexpected appearance.
Viewing an autopsied body without embalming is legal and possible in most cases; however many funeral homes will restrict this to immediate family only, and will still charge the autopsy repair fee. It’s almost never possible to dress the body without embalming first, so the viewing will have to take place with the body dressed in a hospital gown or draped with sheets.
Summary: It will take longer. It will cost more. They may not be able to wear their own clothes; you may have to purchase a different size and style. You don’t know for sure what happened to their hair. I am able to satisfactorily restore nearly all autopsied deaths and I never discourage viewing them, but I want families to know exactly what has occurred and what to expect.