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 |