How It Is Done continued...
The autopsy begins with a careful examination of the external part of the body. Photographs may be taken of the entire body and of specific body parts. X-rays may be taken to evaluate skeletal or other abnormalities, confirm injuries, locate bullets or other objects, or to help establish identity. The body is weighed and measured. Clothing and valuables are identified and recorded. The location and description of identifying marks, such as scars, tattoos, birthmarks, and other significant findings (injuries, wounds, bruises, cuts), are recorded on a body diagram.
A complete internal examination includes removal of and dissection of the chest, abdominal, and pelvic organs and the brain. The examination of the trunk requires an incision from the chest to the abdomen. The removal of the brain requires an incision over the top of the head. The body organs are examined before removal, then removed and examined in detail. Sometimes only a partial autopsy in one specific area of the body is needed. In this case, only the organs and tissues of interest are removed and examined.
In some cases, organs may be placed in a preservative called formalin for days to weeks prior to dissection. This is particularly important in the examination of the brain for certain types of diseases or injuries. Tissue samples are taken from some or all of the organs for examination under a microscope. Samples of blood, organs, and body fluids may be removed and preserved to test for drugs or infection or to evaluate chemical composition or genetics. Samples may include blood from the heart or blood vessels, vitreous gel from the eyes, bile from the gallbladder, contents of the stomach, urine, and tissues from organs, such as the liver.
Completion of the autopsy may require examination of tissues under a microscope, further investigation of the circumstances of death, or specialized tests (such as genetic or toxicology tests). The tests performed may vary based on the findings at the autopsy dissection, the circumstances of death, the questions asked about the death, and the condition of the tissues and body fluids obtained at autopsy. Toxicology testing is not generally performed in every autopsy, particularly those not required by law. Genetic testing is not often done unless the family has been consulted. A written report describes the autopsy findings. This report may address the cause of death and may help answer any questions from the deceased person's doctor and family.
After the autopsy
If the autopsy was required by law, after the autopsy is completed, the pathologist, coroner, or medical examiner completes and signs the cause and manner of death on the death certificate. If the autopsy was not required by law, the doctor caring for the person prior to death often signs the death certificate and may complete it before the results of a family-requested autopsy are known.