When rising rates of occurrence are reported for a particular disease, clinicians often cannot determine whether the disease has increased in actual occurrence or in the improved detection provided by better diagnostic technology and expanded access to medical care. The epidemiologic use of necropsy data, which might help answer these questions, has been inhibited by fears of bias in demographic and clinical selection of patients for necropsy. The demographic problem can be managed by suitable adjustment and standardization of the disease rates found at necropsy, and the clinical problem can be reduced or avoided by studying the rates with which the disease is found unexpectedly in necropsies performed for other, unrelated clinical reasons. The results, obtained in population groups "screened" via necropsy, can suggest the magnitude of the "undetected reservoir" that coexists and supplements the rates of reported occurrence for a disease. In a study of necropsies at Yale-New Haven (Conn) Hospital from 1972 to 1981, the necropsy detection rates for lung cancer were slightly higher for women than for men, and were substantially higher for both genders than the customarily reported rates in the general population. The results suggest that the reported rates may continue to rise in both genders until they become essentially equal at a size approximating that of the currently undetected reservoir. The "epidemiologic necropsy" offers a potentially valuable method to help distinguish the true occurrence rates of disease from the changes attributable to improved diagnostic detection with modern technology.