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What Happens During an Autopsy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon972685 — On Oct 05, 2014

I've just been reading above commits due to my advanced stage cancer. I've signed my body up for teaching up and coming pathologists autopsy procedures. My body will be used to teach them as they get to do an autopsy on me for their study. I feel it's the best way pathology students can learn about how they need to do their job and I'm happy to give my body for their education. It is a good way of helping the medical field study what they need to.

It may not be for everyone, I agree, but it is useful to read others' views.

By amypollick — On Jul 15, 2012

@anon279885: You need to send a strongly-worded letter of complaint to the chief medical examiner in the county where the autopsy was performed. You also need to copy it to the director of the state department of forensic sciences, and include copies of the photos. This is worse than heartless-- it is unconscionable and unethical. It is a complete violation of medical ethics. You should be able to find the names you're looking for in an internet search. You may not get anything, but you may prevent this from happening to another grieving family. If you don't get any satisfaction, send e-mails to the news editors at the local newspaper and TV stations. Someone needs to put a stop to this.

By anon279885 — On Jul 14, 2012

I attended my brother's funeral today. They did an autopsy. He was on the other side of the country and we had to wait a week to get him back home. When we got his personal things, my sister and I charged his phone up and looked at the pictures.

Someone in the medical examiner's office took a picture of my brother with his head cut open and skin peeled back over his skull. It was next to a picture that had part of his face on it. We thank God that our father or my brother's kids didn't see this. I don't understand how someone could be so heartless.

By anon278456 — On Jul 06, 2012

While it hurts to read this, it helps to have some answers of what goes on during an autopsy. My boyfriend died nine weeks ago and we were told it would be two weeks for autopsy results. We still have no idea, but what's done is done and it's not like knowing how he died will bring him back. Thanks for the info.

By anon251969 — On Mar 03, 2012

I know for a fact that body parts are not put back in place, e.g., the brain isn't put back into the head. They just take all the organs and chuck them into the body cavity and sew the person up.

By anon196976 — On Jul 15, 2011

I know that a lot of people will argue (like above) that it may be an excuse for trainees to practice, but I would like them to note that a lot of universities do have donated bodies which they practice on before graduating. The one and only purpose of an autopsy is for medical purposes, to get a better idea of the state of the body and condition. It is not tearing the body apart haphazardly, it is a studied and practised science.

I will gladly give my body away for scientific research after death, knowing that it will help in the progression of science. My friend is currently working at a lab studying cures for cancer of the brain, and how far they currently are would not have been at all possible if it weren't for the kind souls donating their bodies to universities and studies done in autopsies.

I hope this clears up that it is most certainly not an excuse for trainees to practice "hacking and slashing," but instead something which will benefit families, scientific progress and future generations.

By anon137979 — On Dec 29, 2010

thanks. my sis passed away at an early age and we're awaiting results from the autopsy. I've been curious about what's involved in the autopsy and this gave me a good overview.

By anon130516 — On Nov 28, 2010

My opinion, is some autopsies are an excuse for medical trainees to practice hacking and slashing. It's a legal form of corpse abuse. Should not happen when death is obvious, like a terminal disease, or wreck !

By anon120268 — On Oct 20, 2010

I am absolutely 100 percent fascinated by being a forensic pathologist. It's so cool.

By anon113088 — On Sep 23, 2010

my sister got killed in a car wreck. why cut her up any more? It was clearly a car accident.

By anon98107 — On Jul 22, 2010

The final diagnosis: what the autopsy reveals about life and death, is an informative and interesting read on this little known branch of medical science.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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