The term “autopsy,” meaning “to see for oneself,” has been in use in reference to determining cause of death by examining a body since 1678. In any instance of a suspicious or violent death, an autopsy is performed to determine the precise cause of death and to collect evidence that may be found in or on the body, such as fibers, fingerprints, bullets, and toxins. In some cases, this examination is required, while in other instances, hospital personnel may ask a family if they would like one. In instances where it is optional, it can still be revealing and may provide important information for other family members, such as evidence of a genetic illness that should be addressed.
A physician called a forensic pathologist oversees an autopsy. The process starts with a thorough exterior examination of the body. X-rays are taken and the body is photographed extensively, while the presiding pathologist makes notes about any distinguishing features on the body and any visible injuries. Sometimes, the cause of death is readily apparent during this examination, as might be the case with someone who was decapitated, but the internal examination of the body is also important.
After the exterior of the body has been meticulously documented, the forensic pathologist makes a Y-shaped incision in the body's chest and opens the rib cage with a Stryker saw, a specialized saw that will cut through bone but not soft tissue. The major organs of the body, such as the heart, liver, lungs, and stomach, are removed for examination, and small samples are taken for lab inspection. Indicators of disease are noted, and usually the stomach is opened so that its contents can be examined. Samples of body fluids are also taken so that they can be tested for drugs, toxins, and any other unusual substances. After inspection, the organs are usually placed back into the body cavity before it is sewn up.
After the primary body cavity is examined, the forensic pathologist looks at the brain. If a neurological condition contributed to the decedent's cause of death, it will often be revealed upon inspection. To examine the brain, the forensic pathologist uses the Stryker saw to open the top of the skull. Like the other bodily organs, the brain is photographed, examined, and weighed. Tissue samples may be taken for a laboratory examination before the brain is returned to the skull.
While the process of an autopsy may seem gruesome to some, it can provide valuable medical clues. Especially in terminally ill patients, this examination can provide information for medical professionals about the exact cause of death, which may help them treat other patients with similar conditions in the future. In murder investigations, it is a crucial piece of the puzzle, showing how exactly the victim died and what was used to kill him or her. People interested in the mechanics of death often pursue careers are forensic pathologists or forensic anthropologists so that they can learn more about this inevitable life process.