Simply put, an autopsy (or postmortem examination) is an exam performed on a dead body in order to determine the cause of death, the effects a disease had on the individual, or to identify the deceased.  The word autopsy comes from the word autopsia, a Greek word that means to see with one’s own eyes.

With the plethora of television shows revolving around the world of crime dramas, most of us feel like we have an in-depth knowledge of the autopsy process.  They happen quickly, results arrive immediately, and criminals are found guilty.  This all happens within an hour of television viewing.  However, in the real world, autopsies do not follow the exact same path, and results are definitely not as immediate.

Autopsies can be performed for several reasons.  The one reason that we are the most familiar with is to solve crimes related to suspicious, violent, or sudden deaths.  However, autopsies are often performed for other reasons as well.  They may be used to identify or determine the extent to which a disease affected the deceased.  They may also be used to determine whether a surgical or medical treatment was effective.  They are also used to further an individual’s medical training.

Pathologists, the individuals who perform autopsies, are medical doctors who have specialized training in the diagnosis of diseases by examining body fluids and tissues.  To become a pathologist requires 12 years of education after high school.  An individual must first complete a three to four year prerequisite college course, followed by four years of medical school, and culminating in four to five years of a residency in pathology.

The External Examination

The autopsy starts with a thorough external examination.  The height and weight of the body are recorded, as well as any identifying marks, including tattoos and scars.  Careful notes are kept on all findings, as well as pictures.

The Internal Examination

Following the external exam, an internal examination takes place.  The pathologist cuts open the chest and abdomen with a Y-shaped incision, with the two arms of the Y running from each shoulder to mid-chest, and the stem then running from mid-chest down to the navel, and lower.  There is little blood because the heart is no longer pumping the blood through the body, and the only blood pressure remaining is due to gravity.

The internal organs are examined within the body first.  After each organ has been examined, it is removed and weighed and then examined more closely.  The various organs are dissected to look for any abnormalities, including tumors, on the inside.  Small samples are often taken from each organ to be examined under the microscope.  If required, the brain may be autopsied as well.  Any dissected portions of the internal organs will be preserved, especially if something unusual is found during the exam.

The Final Step

Once the autopsy is complete, the organs may or may not be returned to the body.  All cuts made to the body are sewn up; the body is washed and the body is then ready for the funeral home.

Some Facts Regarding Autopsies

  1. An autopsy can be restricted to a single part of the body, or a specific organ.
  2. Autopsies are performed for legal, educational and research purposes.
  3. A body that has undergone an autopsy can still be laid out in an open casket at the funeral, if that is the wishes of the family.
  4. The number of autopsies has decreased over the last 50 years from 50% to less than 10%.
  5. Medical examiners can order an autopsy without the family’s consent, in the case of a suspicious death.
  6. Medical examiners investigate all suspicious deaths including the deaths of individuals who were not being treated by a doctor for a medical condition, the deaths of individuals who were under a doctor’s care for less than 24 hours, and deaths that happened during the course of an operation or other medical procedure.
  7. In cases not dealing with a suspicious death, the family must consent to an autopsy before it can be performed. The family has the right to limit which organs can be examined in the autopsy.