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Following a recent enquiry into surgery at a paediatric cardiac centre in England, there will be substantial changes in the way that the success and failure of surgical procedures will be monitored and investigated. Post-mortem examinations on patients dying after cardiac surgery are likely to be performed and reported in more detail. This review describes the protocol that we have developed and summarizes recent clinical and pathological studies that have increased our understanding of postoperative pathophysiology. Close attention should be paid to the history, particularly the operation note. Cardiac failure is the commonest cause of death. We believe this is a clinicopathological diagnosis and provide definitions of preoperative and perioperative cardiac failure. Haemorrhage, stroke, pulmonary emboli and infection are other important causes of death. Methods of dissection are suggested for bypass grafts and valve replacements. Two recent studies show that the post-mortem examination provides answers to most clinical questions and reveals an unexpected cause of death in 10-15% of patients. There are limitations however: an incomplete or indeterminate cause of death is found in 14-25% of patients, most commonly sudden clinically unexplained death or clinically unexplained cardiac failure soon after surgery.