Clinical attribution of the cause of death can be misleading, with the only true outcome measure being post-mortem analysis. Despite this there is very little published data on post-mortems following cardiac surgery. Prospective consecutive post-mortem data were collected on 167 patients (84.4% of all in-hospital cardiac surgical deaths) in a single institution. Clinical diagnoses were compared with post-mortem findings. The mean age at death was 69.8 with 67.6% male. The proportion undergoing coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) alone was 52.1%, valve surgery 18.6%, valve+CABG 19.2% and other procedures 10.1%. The mean time to death was 7.9 days (range 0-87). The causes of death were cardiac 67.7%, gastrointestinal 9.6%, respiratory 8.4%, haemorrhage/technical failure 4.8%, stroke (cerebrovascular accident) 3.6%, multiorgan failure 3.0%, sepsis 1.8%, malignancy 0. 6% and trauma 0.6%. Post-mortem revealed an unsuspected cause of death in 19 (11.4%). These were gastrointestinal (infarction nine, perforation two), cardiac three, adult respiratory distress syndrome two, technical two and pulmonary embolus one. In addition, an unsuspected lung cancer was found in 1 patient who died of cardiac causes. When cardiac deaths were compared with non-cardiac causes the Parsonnet score was higher 20.0 (+/-1.4) vs. 15.3 (+/-1.6), P=0. 07; and a greater proportion tended to have poor ejection fractions (34 vs. 15%), P=0.12. There was no significant difference between the groups in terms of age, sex, operation, hypertension, diabetes, creatinine and body mass. Post-mortem can determine unsuspected diagnoses in a significant proportion of cases. Pre-operative risk factors do not correlate with eventual cause of death. Post-mortem still has an important role to play in cardiac surgery.