Post-mortem (Autopsy)

What is the law and what are the options for Muslims regarding post-mortem?

In the Name of Allāh ﷻ, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

As-salāmu ‘alaykum wa-rahmatullāhi wa-barakātuh

What is a post-mortem?

A post-mortem, also known as an autopsy is an examination of the (dead) body carried out to determine the cause of death. Post-mortems are carried out by pathologists (doctors who specialise in understanding the nature and causes of disease). Pathologists work to the standard set forth by the Royal College of Pathologists and the Human Tissue Authority (HTA). The objective of a post-mortem is to try to understand how, when and why someone has died or to obtain a better understanding of how diseases spread.

A post-mortem is usually carried out as soon as possible, usually within two to three working days of a death.

Why and who orders post-mortem?

NHS explains that the post-mortem examination will be carried out if it’s been requested by:

  1. a coroner – because the cause of death is unknown, or following a sudden, violent or unexpected death. A coroner is a judicial officer responsible for investigating deaths in certain situations. Coroners are usually lawyers or doctors with a minimum of 5 years’ experience. In most cases, a doctor or the police refer a death to the coroner.
  2. a hospital doctor – to find out more about an illness or the cause of death, or to further medical research and understanding. Post-mortems are sometimes requested by hospital doctors to provide more information about an illness or the cause of death, or to further medical research.

What happens in an (invasive) post-mortem?

NHS explains the procedure for the post-mortem examination as follows:

The post-mortem takes place in an examination room that looks similar to an operating theatre. The examination room will be licensed and inspected by the Human Tissue Authority (HTA). During the procedure, the deceased person’s body is opened and the organs removed for examination. A diagnosis can sometimes be made by looking at the organs. Some organs need to be examined in close detail during a post-mortem. These investigations can take several weeks to complete. The pathologist will return the organs to the body after the post-mortem has been completed.

Can a post-mortem be denied?

The determination of the cause of death is a legal requirement. Therefore, the coroner is required by law to carry out a post-mortem when a death is suspicious, sudden unexpected or unnatural. The family of the deceased will not be asked for consent and have no legal standing to deny a post-mortem ordered by a coroner.

Post-mortem not requested by the coroner in most cases require consent and cannot be carriedout without consent. The next of kin of the deceased may have the right to deny consent for a post-mortem if the post-mortem has been requested by the hospital unless the deceased had himself/ herself given consent.

Our advice is for families to check with the relevant (local) authorities about their legal rights regarding the post-mortem of their loved ones. We also advise individuals to state in their Will whether or not they would not like a post-mortem to be carried out on their body, and, that if it is legally required a non-invasive post-mortem such as a MRI scan or digital scan be performed.

What are our legal options for post-mortem?

The established position in normative Islam is that the human body is sacred and cutting it is contrary to its sanctity. We advise that the family members should inform the coroner of the sensitivity of the issue from an Islamic perspective as early as possible.

In the High court ruling 2015 (Charles Abe Rotsztein vs Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Inner North London) Judge Mitting stated where there is an established religious tenet that invasive autopsy is to be avoided then a non-invasive autopsy should be carried out as long as there is a realistic possibility that non-invasive autopsy would lead to establishing a cause of death.

What is non-invasive or post-mortem or Digital Autopsy?

Digital Autopsy explains the procedure for the (non-invasive) post-mortem examination as follows:

Unlike a traditional autopsy, which involves dissecting the body, a Digital Autopsy potentially eliminates the need for the scalpel. Instead the process is carried out on a computer, in two stages:

  1. First the body is scanned using a CT scanner, which takes less than ten minutes.
  2. The data from the scan is then processed to create a detailed 3D whole body reconstruction of the body. Specially trained radiologists and pathologists can then examine the visual to look for clues as to the cause of death.

Who pays for non-invasive or post-mortem or Digital Autopsy?

There are Muslim organisations who are working with the British Government provide facilities to carry out all post mortems utilising a scanning facility and with no additional costs to the families. These facilities are available in a few cities.

However, in much of Britain, the families will have to bear the costs of a digital autopsy.

Dr Abid Hussain

I have read the content of this article and found it to be accurate and consistent. I have also explained the issue on my site.

Medical Consultant (Anaesthetics) at Central Manchester University Hospitals (United Kingdom)

Will the deceased or the family incur a sin if an invasive post-mortem is carried out?

Our religion takes a grim view of the desecration of the human body. The sanctity of the human body must be preserved. However, there are cases where desecration of the human body is allowed for the greater good for example in the case of major surgeries or amputation etc. it is often done to preserve life and/or limb.

The same case applies to organ donation. In order to harvest the organ, desecration of the human body is necessary.

My advice is for the families to articulate to the coroner to order a digital autopsy and then the raise the funds to pay for it. I strongly urge Muslims from the local community to provide financial assistance to the family of the deceased as it will be a means for gaining rewards in the Hereafter, Insha’Allah.

Where digital autopsy is explicitly rejected or the funds cannot be procured despite best efforts and the autopsy is required to be carried out by the state, then the deceased or the family will not be sinful In-shāʾ-Allāh, because the invasive post-mortem is forced upon them.

Mufti Amjad Mohammed

BSc (Hons) | MPhil | FHEA | PGCE | PGCHEP | PGDipRes | NPQH |