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Investigating Prince's Death: What Happens During an Autopsy?

by Felix Gussone, MD and Shelly Choo, MD /  / Updated 
Image: Prince performs in L.A. in 2009
Musician Prince performs his first of three shows onstage during "One Night... Three Venues" hosted by Prince and Lotusflow3r.com held at NOKIA Theatre L.A. LIVE on March 28, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.Kristian Dowling / Getty Images for Lotusflow3r.com, file

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Prince's autopsy is complete, according to a statement released by the Midwest Medical Examiners Office Friday. The body of the 57-year-old music iconwill be released to family later today, although the investigation is far from complete.

"Gathering the results will take several days and the results of a full toxicology scan could likely take weeks," the statement said.

Authorities are trying to determine what caused Prince's death. There was no sign of trauma or suicide, the Carver County, Minnesota Sheriff said during a press conference Friday.

It may be weeks before we clearly know why Prince died, but when there is a sudden or unexpected death, this is what the medical examiner is looking for:

A typical autopsy consists of:

  • External examination of the body
  • Weighing and measuring
  • Looking for any valuable clues such as injuries, bruises, lacerations, track marks
  • Internal examination (if called for)
  • Removing and dissecting the chest, abdominal and pelvic organs
  • If necessary, the brain as well

There are two different forms of autopsy: forensic and hospital autopsy.

Both are trying to determine the cause of death, but in the forensic autopsy the pathologist tries to determine not just the biological cause of death but, often, the manner of death (natural, accident, suicide or homicide) — as well as the person’s time of death and/or injury.

This autopsy may also involve investigating the scene, clothing and toxicology.

RELATED: Prince's Mysterious Final Flight Stopped for 'Unresponsive Male': Source

How Long Does it Take and When Do Results Usually Come Out?

The autopsy is usually performed within 24 hours of death or as soon as possible.

The autopsy itself may take several hours depending on circumstances; however, the report needs to be written and that may take another day. Preliminary autopsy reports are usually available the next working day. Final autopsy reports are usually ready between 30 and 45 days later.

Complex cases may take up to 90 days.

How Would They Know If Someone 'Died From the Flu'?

If a person died from pneumonia as a flu complication, the pathologist would likely see lung tissue changes, inflammation, perhaps pus during the autopsy.

Lungs can show evidence of damage and evidence of bleeding, but this doesn’t have to be flu. It is usually a sign of infection in the lung.

How Would They Know if Someone Died From a Drug Overdose?

Determining a drug-related death requires autopsy results and the toxicology results.

For example: Just because a dead person has cocaine in the blood doesn’t necessarily mean the person died from it. But if the pathologist finds high amounts of cocaine in the blood and signs of a heart attack, the conclusion is likely to be that the person died of a heart attack caused by a drug overdose.

The toxicology screening is done with the blood taken from the dead body. The results often take weeks (4-6 weeks or longer).

What Does a Toxicology Screening Look for?

It may include:

  • Amphetamines
  • Benzodiazepine (Valium, Xanax)
  • Cocaine
  • Marijuana
  • Cannabinoids
  • Opiods: usually detects morphine, which is a by-product of many opioids, including heroin and codeine. Can also detect the synthetic opioids like fentanyl, hydrocodone and oxycodone.

  • PCPs

Prince Was Reported to be a Jehovah's Witness: What Are Their Beliefs About Autopsy?

Unless there is a compelling reason, such as when an autopsy is required by law, Jehovah’s Witnesses generally prefer that the body not be subjected to postmortem dissection. The appropriate family member can decide if a limited autopsy is advisable to determine the cause of death.

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