When you need someone to exam a corpse to determine a cause of death, how do they conduct the autopsy?
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How does an autopsy work?
First of all, a word of warning for our viewers. If you're squeamish, you might want to watch a less-gross episode of BrainStuff. Like "Why is bird poop white? Or "How do bed bugs work?"
Let’s clarify that an autopsy is a medical examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death. There’s two types: forensic and clinical.
Clinical ones are performed for research, medical training, or at the request of the deceased’s family. And forensic autopsies are the ones you’re used to seeing on TV, like when Agent Scully carves into a corpse because the truth is in there. This is often for legal reasons, potentially as evidence in criminal or civil court cases.
While the general procedure is similar, for our purposes, let’s stick to forensic autopsies. Why? 'Cause I ain’t going out like a punk!
All legally investigated deaths fall into 5 categories: natural, accident, homicide, suicide and undetermined. Yeah, that last one may seem a little wishy-washy, but sometimes the answers aren’t that clear for the attending medical examiner or coroner.
And this is an important distinction. Forensic pathologists are physicians, trained to perform autopsies.
In some counties they use “coroners” instead. And a coroner doesn’t necessarily have medical training. Instead, they’re elected to their position. They can be anyone: farmers, snake handlers, even YouTube hosts… But if a non-medical coroner ever needs assistance, the state usually provides them with a medical examiner.
When that examiner finally gets ahold of your cold body, here’s what they’ll do to it. First they gather information on you, your death and your medical records. Then they record an external exam of your appearance.
They start by photographing you inside a body bag, noting your clothing and its position before stripping you naked. They try to establish your identity, noting ethnicity, gender, age, and hair and eye color. Then they collect samples of hair, fingernails and any foreign objects found on your surface.
Once the external exam is done, they clean your body, weigh it and measure it. On the table they place a rubber body block under your back to make your chest protrude forward so the arms and neck fall back. This makes it easier... for the cutting!
For a complete internal exam they start with the chest, making a Y-shaped incision. Following this, they peel back your skin, muscle and soft tissue with a scalpel, pull the chest flap over your face and expose your ribcage and neck muscles.
Your ribcage is then removed, followed by your larynx, esophagus, arteries and ligaments. By severing a few attachments to your spinal cord, bladder, and rectum, the examiner can remove the rest of your organs as an entire set.
Your organs are each examined and weighed, with sample slices taken of their tissue. If necessary, these organs are stored in formalin.
Depending on how you died, they probably won’t cut open your arms, hands, legs or face.
But don’t think your head is off the hook just yet. If they need a peek inside your noggin, the examiner will move the rubber block under your neck like a pillow. Then they make a cut from behind one ear, across your forehead, over to the other ear and around the back.
Then out comes the electric saw to pop the top of your skull off like a cap and expose your brain. This is severed from your spinal cord and then lifted out, Frankenstein style. Just like your other organs, it’s weighed and examined.
What happens to all of those organs, sitting outside of your body anyway? Well, depending on the style of funeral, they’re either put back in or incinerated. Either way, the butterflied chest flaps are closed, the skull cap is placed back on your head and everything is sewn up nice and tidy with a baseball stitch.
Though even after your body goes off to the funeral home, a pathologist’s work is never done. It takes days to get tissue and blood samples tested and at least two weeks for brain samples. Then it takes hours more to write up a detailed report for the official record.
Keep in mind that this is a brief overview of the autopsy process. We didn’t even get into examining wounds, determining the time of death, or what tools of the trade are used to crack you open.
Sedaris, D. (1998). Working stiffs. Esquire, 129(4), 114.
Odyssey. Sep2008, Vol. 17 Issue 7, p18-21. 4p. 3 Color Photographs, 1 Graph. What does the autopsy show? Kowalski, Kathiann M.