Postmortem (less often spelled post-mortem) refers to an event that takes place after death. However, the word is commonly used in many ways:

Postmortem, the adverb
The most common and literally correct use of the word is as an adverb, used to describe some act or event that takes place after death.

Postmortem, the noun
The term postmortem examination (see autopsy, necropsy) is often shortened to simply "postmortem". A postmortem examination is performed by a coroner or a pathologist. One of the earliest known postmortem examinations was performed in 44 BC by a Roman physician called Antistius, who examined the body of Julius Caesar.

The objective of a forensic postmortem examination is usually to determine conclusively, that is more conclusively than the obvious signs of outward trauma would indicate, the cause of death. Other objectives include:
  • determining the identity of the deceased
  • establishing the approximate time of death
  • distinguishing homicide from suicide or natural causes
  • determining if a weapon was used and the type of weapon
The cause of death is usually broken down into facts classified into four categories:

The contributing cause of death refers to any pre-existing or condition that may have only contributed to the cause of death but is not the direct cause of death. For example, an immune system deficiency might be a contributing cause of death, while the person actually died from pneumonia. A person without an immune system deficiency might not have died from the same case of pneumonia.

In some cases the contributing cause is also the immediate cause of death and the distinction is merely semantics.

The immediate cause of death is the actual reason why the person is dead; the true cause of death. Following the example above, the immediate cause of death might have been "asphyxia", because pneumonia caused the lungs to fill with liquid, effectively drowning the victim. The immediate cause is often a medical term that refers to some action that would cause the body to stop living.

The mechanism of death describes how the body died. The mechanism of death for our pneumonia victim might be that the lungs filled with fluid and could no longer transport oxygen. Another example could be a "gunshot wound to the head" - the immediate cause of death could be blood loss, but the mechanism is the extra hole in the head.

The manner of death is the opinion of the examiner as to whether the death is a homicide, suicide, accidental, natural or unknown. If the mechanism or immediate cause of death is unknown, the manner of death is usually ruled as unknown. If a death is a suicide but some other party was involved in anyway, the death is usually ruled a homicide and left to the legal system to elect to lay charges; such might be the case in an assisted suicide.
Clinical postmortem examinations are used for teaching and research. Medical students receive hands-on surgical training by dissecting and examining cadavers. Medical research by postmortem examination has also been indispensable for discovering causes of ailments such as tuberculosis and determining if a doctor's antemortem diagnosis is correct or incorrect and why.

A postmortem examination is a serious matter that must always respect the body that is being examined. Inscribed over the entrance to the New York morgue is the Latin phrase:

Taceant colloquia. Effugiat risus. Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae.
Let idle talk be silenced. Let laughter be banished. Here is the place where Death delights to succour life.

Many morgues post a sign displaying the words "Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae", which is often translated slightly differently from the above as "This is the place where death rejoices to teach those who live".

The postmortem examination is performed in stages, with each stage usually more destructive to the body than then previous. Therefore, the stages must proceed in order. The pathologist performing the examination will determine how the examination should proceed, depending on factors that are too numerous to detail and vary from case to case.

Regardless of how the actual dissection will take place, the procedure always starts with the gross examination. This is generally a non-invasive examination of the body. The body is weighed and measured. The entire exterior of the body is reviewed and any injuries or abnormal features are documented. Some internal examination may take place, but nothing that couldn't normally be done to a live body, such as looking down the throat, ear canals, nostrils, etc.

When the body is opened and the internal workings and organs are examined, a tissue sample from each organ is preserved. Each organ may also be removed from the body, examined for any abnormality, its weight recorded. The brain may also be excised and dissected but it is often pre-soaked with a fixative liquid in order to help maintain is solidity and prevent it from falling apart once removed from the skull.

Once the examination is completed the organs are usually replaced within the body and it is sewn shut.

The postmortem examination of a newborn baby is different than the usual examination of an adult. This examination is often carried out by a specialist called a neonatal pathologist. In fewer than 20% of cases, unless the mechanism of death is obvious, the cause of death for a stillborn child or delivered infant cannot be conclusively determined.

Postmortem, the buzz word
Occasionally the term "postmortem" is used to describe activities that take place after some final, irreversible and often negative event (that has nothing to do with an actual death) has occurred.

In the business world you might pitch an idea to a prospective client but fail to win their business. In this case the "postmortem" would consist of reviewing your approach, your presentation, etc. and trying to figure out what could have been done better or what went wrong.

This buzz word is most commonly used by yuppie-types, who are also apt to call a business engagement a "gig" and declare a job complete by saying they "put that baby to bed".

As is noted in FredPenner's writeup, the term "postmortem" is often used to describe a review or critique that takes place after a particular activity has been completed. While specific reference to business endeavours were made, it should also be noted that postmortems are regular occurances in the world of journalism. In many cases, they happen every day.

The postmortem is the discussion -- usually among some or all members of the editorial staff -- after the publication of the most recent issue of the paper. It usually takes place the day said issue hits newsstands, if not shortly thereafter. The entire point of a postmortem is that credit be given where credit is due for a job well done and that if mistakes were made, they be learned from. It is also an opportunity for people who are responsible for different aspects of the publication (content, visuals, etc.) to comment on those areas and explain and defend their decisions if necessary.

So... why the death reference?

Because the issue is finished. It is done. Moreover, there is nothing any of the editorial staff members can do by the time the postmortem has rolled around. The issue is on newsstands. Readers are probably handing over exact change so they can purchase a copy as we speak. Discussing the issue right after you've finished the issue and as it heads to press is not a postmortem because there is still a chance, however minute, that you can fix something.

The issue is dead. All you can do is look back, remember it and think about how it's going to change your life next time.

These things sound as though they could be... dramatic

And, indeed, they can be. We're talking about a meeting devoted, at least in part, to what's wrong with the issue those at the table worked very hard to produce. Editors rarely mince words about such things and it can be very difficult to hear blunt criticism of something you may well be proud of.

There's no other way to describe postmortems of a journalistic variety other than to say that if you're in the industry for long enough, you tend to get used to them. One editor's opinion is just as valid as the next's, and most understand that. A postmortem is not a place to blindly insult other people's work. Constructive criticism is what's sought.

How do these work, anyway?

Depends on the publication. If we're talking a magazine or other publication that comes out once every few weeks or months, the postmortem might be a specially scheduled event. A daily newspaper might conduct its postmortem any one of a number of ways. The paper at which I've been interning conducts its postmortem at the morning news meeting when the editors discuss not only that day's edition but what is planned for the next day. The rest of the staff is notified of any pertinent issues that arose during the postmortem in the mass email that also explains which reporters are working on what that day.

Other papers conduct postmortems differently. Some assign the duty of penning a written postmortem to a different editor on a daily basis. The report is then distributed to the masthead and any other staff member who wishes to see it. My journalistic home tried to do things this way sometime last year; three people would be selected from the masthead every week (the paper being a weekly) to compose a postmortem and email it to the rest of the masthead.

While that might work well at a major daily where people's job descriptions include sporadically writing a postmortem, this didn't really cut it at a paper that we were working at on top of other jobs and school, and for which we were receiving minimal pay. People just didn't do it. The paper has since returned to its traditional method -- going through the previous issue page-by-page at the weekly masthead meeting before discussing potential story ideas.

So... people get together and discuss other people's mistakes?

Partially. Depending entirely on the structural makeup of the publication, those who were responsible for its various aspects might not even be at the meeting. Smaller publications may require editors to manage their own content and their own layouts, while larger publications often have separate departments that are usually kept quite separate. It is rare for a publication with an actual layout department to send a great deal of representatives therefrom to a postmortem meeting.

As for the discussion of other people's mistakes, it may sound cruel but sometimes the most effective way to make sure mistakes are never repeated is to ensure that a number of people know about them.

Most of those who have been to a journalistic postmortem are there for the sake of the publication and are willing to take whatever is said about their work with a grain of salt.

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