A procedure for investigating a person’s death by reconstructing what the person thought, felt, and did before death, based on information gathered from personal documents, police reports, medical and coroner’s records, and face-to-face interviews with families, friends, and others who had contact with the person before the death. This contrasts to a “usual” autopsy in which body cavities are opened, tissues examined, and a physical cause of death determined.
A psychological autopsy focuses on the decedent’s intentions relating to his own death, especially suicide. Psychological autopsies are of interest to both insurance companies and beneficiaries of the deceased, as life insurance policies are often written so that the estate of someone who commits suicide is less likely to collect death benefits.
In the “usual” death, a person suffers from a known set of morbid condition(s) and dies as a natural consequence of the terminal progression of those conditions. In an “unnatural” death–e.g., homicide or suicide, determination of nosology is more difficult and requires analysis of circumstances preceding death.
• Life history, e.g., previous suicide attempts
• Psychological data, e.g., indices of depression or agitation, recent loss of appetite or interest in life
• Communicated information, e.g., indications of morbid thoughts, “…I can’t go on”, “…they’ll be sorry…”
• Nonpsychological details provided by the scene of death, indicating attention to details that would ensure death, e.g., 2 bottles of the same medication used for overdose, door locked from the inside, powder signature on the hand believed to have held the gun, etc.
Synonym Psychological postmortem examination