BACKGROUND/AIMS: Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) had been one of the malignancies with the highest reported increase of incidence in Sweden, but during the late 20-year period the incidence has been decreasing. The aims of our study were to state the impact of autopsy on diagnosis and to identify clinical characteristics in HCC. METHODOLOGY: This retrospective study was performed in Göteborg, Sweden and included all cases with a diagnosis of liver cancer from a period with a high autopsy frequency (1958-1979). The cases were reevaluated histopathologically and the autopsy records as well as the case files were scrutinized. RESULTS: The majority (63%) of the 530 biopsy verified cases of HCC were diagnosed unexpectedly at autopsy. Cirrhosis of the liver could be established in 71% of the cases, but was diagnosed or at least clinically suspected before the diagnosis of the tumor only in a minority (19%) of all HCC patients. At presentation, malaise (85%), weight loss (78%), anorexia (67%) and hepatomegaly (84%) were common. The median survival time from diagnosis was one month. In most cases (92%) the cause of death was either directly or indirectly related to HCC and/or underlying liver disease such as advanced tumor disease, hepatic failure and gastrointestinal bleeding. Spontaneous rupture of HCC was the cause of death in 17 cases (3%) CONCLUSIONS: In an unselected population in a low incidence area of HCC, most patients have clinically unknown cirrhosis of the liver and present with vague general paramalignant symptoms. HCC has an extremely poor prognosis. Since HCC, in a majority of cases, remains undiagnosed before death, the autopsy has great impact on the diagnosis. This should be considered in interpretation of results from epidemiological studies.