Autopsy: From Crime Scene To Toe Tag


Death investigations are conducted by both the police and medical examiners or coroners. The law in each jurisdiction determines whether or not the area utilizes a coroner or medical examiner.

A coroner is an elected official and may or may not be a medical doctor. (Many California sheriffs also serve as coroner).

A medical examiner is a medical doctor who has been hired/appointed by the city/county/state/federal government to conduct autopsies and investigate the cause of suspicious deaths. Elected coroners who are not doctors must hire a pathologist to conduct autopsies.

The police are in charge of all murder scenes, but medical examiners and coroners are in charge of the body. Medical examiners and coroners do not interrogate and/or arrest suspects. Detectives do not poke and prod the insides of human bodies.

Bodies are placed inside body bags and are generally delivered to the morgue in specially equipped vehicles (pictured above). However, in some areas bodies are transported by EMS, funeral homes, or body transport services.

Upon arrival at the morgue, the body (on a gurney) is rolled onto scales where it’s weighed.

After weighing, the body is placed inside a cold room until autopsy. Black or dark gray, leak-resistant body bags are used pre-autopsy.


The paper bag resting on the body of the murder victim at the top of the above photo contains the victim’s personal belongings. Notice there are no individual drawers for bodies.

Cold rooms also store amputated body parts. The gray trays on the right contain severed limbs. White, paper-like body bags, like the one lying on the gurney in the rear of the cold room above, are used post-autopsy for bodies waiting to be transported to funeral homes.


Our tour of the morgue continues with a peek into the autopsy room/suite, where we’ll examine some of the tools of the trade. If your stomach holds up we’ll even have a glimpse of the star of the show, a murder victim.


The photograph above is of an autopsy station. Think of it as a pathologist’s workshop. To begin the autopsy, a body is placed on a gurney and is then positioned against the center, sink area of the station (feet-first in this morgue).



Pathologists in this particular morgue select instruments from a rolling cart placed at each workstation.


Tools of the autopsy trade.

Some M.E.’s prefer to use a bone saw used for cutting through the rib cage beneath the “Y” incision. It’s also used for cutting through the skull.


Bone saw


Scales for weighing internal organs.


Last Chance To Exit!!






Bodies are positioned on a gurney prior to autopsy. Then they’re wheeled to the autopsy room/suite.

Notice the lividity on the back and sides (lividity is the gravity-induced purplish staining of the tissue at the lowest points of the body). The lividity presenting on the above victim indicates he was lying on his back after his heart stopped beating, and the body remained in that position until lividity became fixed (12 hours, or so). Had this victim been found on his stomach with the lividity fixed on his back, well, that would be a sign that the body had been moved sometime after death.

Next we see the upper chest and neck area of the murder victim. The reddish-brown line circling the neck is a ligature mark  caused by strangling with an electrical extension cord.


Baseball-style stitches are used post autopsy to close the “Y” incision.

Once the internal exam of the head is complete, the scalp (behind the head, from ear to ear) is stitched back into place.


Post-autopsy suturing of the scalp.

Finally, the body is cleaned and returned to the cold room to await pickup by a funeral home.


The end. Really, it is…



4 thoughts on “Autopsy: From Crime Scene To Toe Tag

  • Pat Marinelli

    Great info. Here in New Jersey, the body is wrapped in a sterile sheet before it’s put in the body bag. Why? Because the body bags are expensive and are used over and over again. Sheets protect in case the body bag was not cleaned well.

  • Diana Hockley

    Thank you for the information, Lee. I suspect the autopsy rooms here in Australia are much the same :) or :( as the case may be!

  • L.J. Sellers

    Fascinating! Thank for a great post.

  • Doug Cummings

    When I was a young deputy, my partner and I were assigned to take our department’s two female interns to view a shooting victim’s autopsy. Ken loved to tease and embarrass young women. He was also a gum chewer and a well-known cheapskate.
    As the pathologist opened the victim’s chest, he asked Ken to note the bullet track. Ken moved in, chomping on his Doublemint, and bent down for a closer look.
    “Damn! Dropped my gum,” he said and reached into the body cavity, coming out with the gum.
    “You cheap SOB,” the pathologist said.
    “Waste not, want not,”” Ken said…and popped it back into his mouth.
    Of course, it was sleight of hand but the two women didn’t know that. One left the room. The other used a trash can set aside for exactly that purpose.

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