As a surgical examination of a corpse, the autopsy can serve many functions: to determine whether medical intervention was necessary, or conducted properly (clinical autopsy), or if foul play was a cause of death (forensic autopsy). While scrutiny of the organs is best left to a pathologist with years of experience, the procedure is pretty simple.

With that in mind, grab your bone-saw and let’s get to it.

 

Step 1. Secure the scene.


Depending on the cause of death, your body may be a crime scene all on its own. It’s vital to secure all evidence before, erm… “getting cracking” as it were. Photograph the body, noting any abrasions, bruises, cuts or damage to the skin. Look under the hair and view the scalp. Check under the fingernails for foreign bodies which might be the product of a struggle. All these external clues may be critical in reconstructing the cause of death, particularly if foul play is suspected.

Preserving the scene, taking photographs and being meticulous in your scrutiny of the corpse goes through every step outlined here and may be essential to determining what happened to your unfortunate soul. Missing one minor blood clot or one small internal haemorrhage may spell the difference between your autopsy determining a cause of death or it being ruled “undetermined”.

 

Step 2. Rules and regulations.


Undress, clean, weigh and measure your body. This establishes a baseline for the internal investigation. You may wish to use a voice recorder to assist in recording notes from your examination.

 

Step 3. A conducive work environment.


Place your body on the work surface. A small block can be placed under the back of the body, causing the limbs to fall away and raise the chest upwards, to make it easier to cut open. Usually you’ll want to make a large “Y” shaped incision from both shoulders of your body, meeting in the sternum, then straight down to the pubic bone.

 

Step 4. Get grisly.


You’re going to want some large cutting devices to open up your chest cavity. Think shears. Get your saw out, as we’re going through the ribs laterally to allow the internal organs to be inspected in situ. The ribcage should lift off like a gruesome lid. Nice. You should be able to determine if the organs suffered any trauma or medical issues from their position currently, as it should be almost exactly as it was at the time of death.

 

Step 5. Now go organic.


We’re going to now remove the organs. Before we do, the arteries leading away from the heart can be examined for clots. A sample of blood may be removed from the vena cava for analysis. Following the removal of the heart and lungs, the stomach and intestinal contents can be examined, removed and weighed. The products of digestion may give you a decent indication of the time of death.

 

Step 6. This isn’t rocket science, it’s brain surgery.


The head can now be elevated and examined. After you’ve made an incision underneath the scalp and pulled it back to the front and rear of the head to expose the skull, grab your Stryker saw and cut away a “cap” of the skull which can be pulled off to expose the brain. After cutting the cranial nerves and spinal cord, remove the brain for further examination.

 

Step 7. Toxicology.


Hand over all samples (blood, stomach contents, intestinal contents, etc) for analysis. This should indicate whether your subject has ingested any poisons, drugs or even alcohol – – all which could be relevant, depending on the circumstances, for building up a picture of the precise cause of death.

 

Step 8. Putting it all together.


After the autopsy, the body may be going to a funeral home or similar to be examined by relatives. In the UK it’s illegal to retain tissue following the autopsy unless permission has been given by the next of kin (Human Tissue Act 2004). Make sure the body looks as undisturbed as possible; your earlier work ought to be conducted with the skills of a gifted surgeon (and not a slightly unbalanced butcher).

About The Author

Forensic Outreach has long been a dynamic and active part of classrooms throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. It was conceived as part of UCL’s Widening Participation programme in 2002 to introduce forensic science as an integrative and cross-disciplinary approach to science education.

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