An autopsy is performed in two different phases—an external examination and an internal
In the first phase, McDonald explained, the forensic pathologist will note any identifying
characteristics and any obvious signs of natural disease. The body will be assessed
for post-mortem changes including rigor mortis (stiffening of the joints and muscles)
or livor mortis (settling of the blood) which may help determine time of death. Other
factors including discoloration, bloating, skin slippage or insect activity will also
be noted. The external examination is documented with photography and the forensic
The next phase involves examining the internal organs. That process begins with a
y-shaped incision in which the chest cavity is opened.
“At that point, we’re going to start to examine the different layers we’re seeing,”
This examination includes looking for abnormal accumulations of fluids and any unusual
masses. The forensic pathologist will also inspect the organs while still in place.
When a gunshot wound is involved, the forensic pathologist will note the wound path,
which organs were struck by the bullet and the amount of blood loss internally. In
those cases, recovery of the bullet is critical.
“They are very important pieces of evidence,” McDonald said.
After the in situ examination is completed, the organs will be removed, examined,
weighed, dissected and sampled. In some cases, slides may be prepared for microscopic
During the internal examination, the forensic pathologist or autopsy technician will
also collect fluid samples including bile, blood, vitreous and gastric fluids.
After everything has been examined, the organs are placed back in the body.
“We do pride ourselves in the ability to do a complete autopsy but still allow the
family to have a funeral with an open casket if they opt to do that,” McDonald said.