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Post mortem

A post-mortem examination is a study of a body after death, usually carried out if the cause of death is unknown, sudden or unexpected. The majority of post-mortem examinations are ordered by a coroner. Sometimes they are carried out at the request of hospital doctors who want to find out more about their patient’s illness or why they died, or at the request of the patient’s family.

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In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, mortuaries where post-mortem examinations take place are licensed and inspected by the HTA. We help mortuaries improve the standard of care they provide, so the public can have confidence that deceased people are treated with dignity and respect. Please note that the HTA does not license post mortem establishments in Scotland. Information about regulation in Scotland is provided by Health Scotland.

We also provide publicly-available advice and information so that bereaved families can make decisions about what should happen to organs and tissue samples removed during a post mortem examination for further examination, after the cause of death has been ascertained. In regulating post mortem examination, we work closely with pathologists. However, we do not regulate their professional practice. We also maintain close links with coroners, who fall outside the scope of our regulatory activity.


Post mortem sector - relevant codes of practice

  • Consent (code of practice 1), includes: fundamental principles, general provisions and tissue from the deceased.

  • Post mortem examination (code of practice 3), includes: consent and communication; the coroner’s post-mortem examination; the hospital post-mortem examination; storage of tissue blocks and slides.

  • Disposal of human tissue (code of practice 5), includes: general guidance; disposal of tissue from the deceased; disposal of existing holdings.

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Post mortem sector - HTA standards

The post mortem standards (PDF) are the standards against which a licensed establishment is assessed when it is inspected. By complying with these standards, establishments can be sure that they are meeting statutory and regulatory requirements.


Definition of relevant material

Relevant material is defined in the HT Act as material, other than gametes, which consists of or includes human cells, but not including embryos outside the human body or hair and nail from the body of a living person. Activities involving the removal, storage and use of relevant material for the scheduled purposes listed in the HT Act are subject to the consent provisions and many are also subject to licensing by the HTA. A list of relevant materials is available, although not exhaustive. There are some exemptions to the consent provisions. The HTA can assist if you are in any doubt. 


Report an HTA Reportable Incident (HTARI)

HTARIs are adverse incidents which need to be reported to the HTA within five working days, via the web Portal. The definitions of what is reportable and the reporting procedure can be found here. Designated Individuals (DIs) automatically have Portal accounts, but Persons Designate (PDs) are encouraged to sign-up as soon as they assume a PD role. The HTA has produced an HTARI report (PDF) which provides ‘lessons learned’ and advice and guidance for establishments.


General licensing information directory

A directory of links to pages covering: applying for a licence; the roles of people named on a licence; adding new activities to a licence; extending the area of premises being licensed; adding satellite sites, paying licence fees and compliance reporting.


Post mortem inspection reports and licensed establishments

A list of licensed post mortem establishments can be downloaded here (PDF). All HTA post mortem inspection reports since November 2010 are available to download and a set of frequently asked questions is available to explain inspection reports. Newly licensed establishments may not have an inspection report and some older reports may not be published online, although all inspection reports are available upon request.

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Post mortem model consent forms, guidance for families and the communication pathway

The HTA has produced a model consent form for professionals seeking consent for a post mortem. There is also guidance for the families of the deceased (PDF). We have also produced a model communication pathway (PDF), which supports good communication between pathologists and coroners and helps ensure that the wishes of families with regard to the disposal of tissue samples are met.


Perinatal post mortem and model consent forms

The HTA worked with Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, to produce specialist guidance and model consent forms for perinatal post mortems. There are also learning resources for professionals involved in the consent process.

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Although the HTA's regulatory remit does not extend to coroners, post-mortem examinations authorised by a coroner must be carried out on premises licensed by the HTA. A set of FAQs explains the relationship between the HTA and coroners, there is also a broader explanation of the coroners' role for members of the public at the start of the page.


Emergency mortuaries

In a mass fatality situation, where existing mortuary provision is not sufficient to deal with the increased capacity, a licence application can be made for an emergency mortuary. Emergency/resilience planning teams should consider and plan for this in advance, so that the HTA can issue the licence as quickly as possible.


Guidance for toxicologists

Guidance for toxicologists on how the provisions of the HT Act are relevant to their work can be found here: Guidance for toxicologists.


Mortuaries and brain/spinal cord donations

Guidance for mortuary staff is available on brain and spinal cord donations. This information is primarily aimed at those tasked with recovering tissue for brain banks and other research institutes using brain tissue and spinal cord from the deceased.


Histopathology Working Group

Our work with the post mortem sector is informed by our Histopathology Working Group (HWG), which meets twice a year to share information, consider current issues and contribute to the development of HTA policy affecting the sector. Membership of the HWG includes representatives from key stakeholder groups, including The Royal College of Pathologists, The Association of Anatomical Pathology Technology, the Home Office and the Coroners Society of England and Wales. Meeting minutes and a description of the group's aims are available on our Governance, committees and working groups page.


Body removal agreements between mortuaries and funeral directors

The HTA's Histopathology Working Group highlighted the need for guidance for mortuaries on how to formalise agreements with funeral directors. This agreement from one of our licensed establishments is considered a good example (PDF).


Interim advice on the handling of fetal tissue

In March 2014, Dr Dan Poulter, Health Minister, made clear that the practices highlighted in a Channel 4 Dispatches programme, where incineration of fetal remains occurred rather than burial or cremation in line with the woman’s wishes, is not acceptable. HTA interim guidance on complying with this instruction is available here.