Obtain Permission or Authorization to Perform Autopsy
The first step in an autopsy is to obtain permission from the next of kin or to be otherwise granted authority to undertake this forensics procedure. For example, if a crime is suspected in the death of an individual, the local coroner has the legal ability to authorize an autopsy.
Collect Appropriate Data Before Commencing an Autopsy
Before the autopsy itself begins, certain types of data are collected and considered. This information includes a deceased person’s medical history. It also includes certain information that can be obtained through an investigation of the death scene and the circumstances surrounding the passing.
Examination of Outside of Body
Television programs and motion pictures likely give quite an inaccurate perception of the autopsy process. These entertainments typically involve scenes in which a medical examiner immediately opens a body and begins examining internal organs.
In fact, once the remains of a deceased person are on the table for an autopsy, the first step is a very close, comprehensive examination of the body itself. The reality is that a good deal of information about the cause and manner of death can be gleaned by this all-important initial external examination.
In addition to an external examination of a body before opening the remains commences, x-rays are another possibility. X-rays aid in obtaining information relating to the cause and manner of death before the skin is broken and changes necessarily occur to the body as a result.
Check for Signs of Physical Abuse or Neglect and Sexual Assault
In this day and age, a focus of many autopsies is on whether evidence of physical abuse or neglect or sexual assault of some type can be identified. This type of inquiry is undertaken as part of an autopsy process even if the remains are not initially brought to a medical examiner as part of an existing criminal investigation. For example, a check will be made for signs a physical abuse or neglect and sexual assault if a person has been hospitalized and there are questions about the cause or manner of death. Unfortunately, physical and sexual assault, as well as neglect, are recurring issues associated with at-risk individuals, including people who’ve been receiving medical care and treatment.
Take Blood Samples
Blood samples are extracted from the body. Blood samples are taken for additional testing that may be necessary to ascertain the cause of death. For example, laboratory tests using blood samples can ascertain if drugs, poison, or some other substance is in a person’s system that caused or contributed to the death
Open the Body Cavity
At this juncture, the body cavity is opened. A scalpel is used to make what is known as a “Y incision.” The incision runs from each shoulder, across the chest, and then down to the pubic bone. This type of incision opens up the body cavity so that a medical examiner can examine the internal organs.
Examine Individual Organs
A medical examiner will then examine each of the major internal organs. These organs may be subjected to further dissection. These are undertaken to ascertain if any signs of disease or injury exist in a particular organ. Samples of the organs may be taken for submission to a laboratory for further analysis.
Dissection of Extremities
Depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding a death, the extremities may also be subject to dissection. This includes arms, legs, hands, and feet. The goal of this process is also to ascertain whether evidence exists of disease or injury.
Inspect the Eyes
The eyes of the deceased individual are closely inspected. For example, they have examined for the presence of broken vessels, which can be a sign of strangulation or choking.
Examination of Head
The head is closely examined for any sign of trauma. If the circumstances warrant, the skull can be opened and the brain removed as part of the process of ascertaining the cause and manner of death. This can include the dissection of the brain and the removal of brain tissue for laboratory testing.
Issuance of Death Certificate
When the autopsy process is completed, the medical examiner issues a death certificate. If further lab testing is necessary, the medical examiner will issue a death certificated that indicates that the cause of death is “pending.” This is done so that the next of kin of the deceased are legally able to proceed with the disposition of the remains.
In California, an autopsy generally is completed within 24 to 48 hours. A family has three days following the conclusion of an autopsy to make arrangements for the transportation of the remains. If more time is needed for that process to start, a medical examiner will nearly always assist a family by extending the time period for the transport of the remains.