The autopsy is a staple of crime and medical dramas, often holding the miraculous key to solving the story's central mystery. But very little of the story actual focuses on what happens in an autopsy. In fact, the TV autopsy process is usually handled with just a few X-rays, some prop organs, and an eccentric examiner spouting esoteric jargon at befuddled detectives. Perhaps it's because of this glossing over that the autopsy fascinates us. Autopsy facts, however, are rarely shared with outsiders, and the steps of an autopsy remain mysterious to the average person. But for those interested in the details, this list looks at what happens during autopsies, gruesome step by gruesome step. The links and videos give even more detail.
This list is not for the squeamish!
There's a great deal of detail on the human body, detail that can be easily overlooked by even the most competent of professionals, but which can prove essential in determining cause of death. For this reason, medical examiners and other forensic researchers take meticulous notes and the highest-possible quality photographs of every inch of skin, before they even touch the body.
This is done both with the subject's clothes on, and after the clothes have been removed and stored in sealed plastic bags for later examination.
After the outside of the body is photographed, medical examiners need to take a peek inside without disturbing anything. X-rays often reveal clues to possible causes of death and provide potential lines of inquiry about factors that may have contributed to the subject's death. As with external photographs, this is ideally done before the body has been tampered with in any other way. X-ray spectrometry can also be used in the study of trace evidence, like gunpowder residue.
Bodily fluids are the best way to get a reliable DNA sample, and are vital to toxicology tests. So, in addition to blood, it is common to take 1 mL of vitreous fluid from each of the subject's eyes. In fact, in some ways, the eye's vitreous fluids are more reliable than blood for testing cause of death.
Because it is acelluar and largely isolated from other fluid systems in the body, vitreous fluid reveals important details about drug- or alcohol-related deaths, as well as the subject's diabetic status.
Particularly if the subject is female and died of unknown causes, a forensic examiner will pay close attention to the genitals, anus, and other body cavities, looking for signs of sexual trauma inflicted on her prior to or after death. This is also commonly done with children. While not necessarily related to the cause of death, this information can provide vital context for potential later discoveries.