Fingerprinting the Dead


Sometimes, investigators have the unpleasant task of identifying a body that’s not in the best of conditions. Decomposition, animal scavengers, and even murderers can often alter a body’s condition so much that a visual ID is impossible. In those situations, fingerprinting the deceased may be the best method available for learning the victim’s name.

(Keep in mind, the following procedures and techniques are normally performed in the morgue by the coroner or medical examiner, not police detectives).

Occasionally, all that’s needed is a standard ink pad and ten-print card (above). Other times, the joints are rigid and unbendable, so investigators must use finger straighteners to help unclasp the digits.


Finger straightners


Horizontal ink rollers are easier to use on the fingers of the dead than the standard vertical ones.


Investigators use printing spoons and fingerprint card strips to print the fingers of the dead. (Photo – FBI)


Printing spoons


Single-digit, pre-inked pads are more convenient than the standard pads normally used where investigators roll ink onto a large, hand-size pad.


Print strip

Flesh is often decomposed, or too soft, to take a print; therefore, investigators inject a solution called tissue builder into the fingertips to make the skin firm enough to print.


Tissue building kit.

Sometimes, the fingers are too badly twisted, or they’re clasped too tightly together to take a print, so investigators remove them from the hand. To do this they use bone snips.


Bone snips

When all else fails, investigators cut off the stiff finger, strip the skin away from the bone, and place the fingertip skin over the end of their own finger. Then they apply ink to the tiny “glove” and press it to a fingerprint card. A perfect print!

To recover prints from the body of a murder victim, investigators can perform standard brushing techniques with magnetic or other powders. They can also place the entire body in a plastic tent and fume it with Superglue just like they would with any other piece of evidence.

As a follow-up to Superglue-fuming, here’s a video that shows just how easy the process really is. Anyone can do it.

*On Monday, The Graveyard Shift is pleased to have guest blogger, Lieutenant Dave Swords (ret.) of the Springfield, Ohio Police Department. Lt. Swords is a thirty year veteran who spent over half his career as an investigator working a variety of cases, including armed robberies and murder.

Dave’s blog topic – Search and Seizure. Please stop by and take advantage of the opportunity to have your questions answered by a police lieutentant.

18 thoughts on “Fingerprinting the Dead

  • Joyce Tremel

    Very interesting! I wonder how many people you’ll gross out today…

    We had a guy in a wheelchair come in last week to be fingerprinted for a job. His hands were so twisted the detective couldn’t do them. He’s going to have him come back and use a spoon.

  • Lee Lofland

    Joyce – Hey, this is a tough bunch. Besides, I only post topics relating to questions writers have asked me about in the past.

    Good point. I should’ve mentioned that cops use the spoons and print strips on live people, too.

  • Terry

    Consider me fascinated, not grossed. (I think I mentioned that marine mammal necropsies are dinner table conversation around here). And also glad I didn’t have to write the scene of getting prints from the dead body for my story — I let the ME deal with that and stuck with my detective’s investigation.

    I was printed using the Livescan setup and it took forever to get prints the computer would accept. The tech was new, so that might have had something to do with it, but I think the computer was a lot fussier than ink and paper.

  • Auntieamy71

    Yeah, I’m a bit grossed out but then, hey, this is fascinating too!

    Question: 20 plus years ago, my Girl Scout troop was fingerprinted by the local police department to show us how it was done and. partially, God Forbid, if something happened to one of us. What do they do with fingerprints taken that long ago? This would have been in 1980.

    Thanks so much.

    Oh, I went and bought your book yesterday Lee. Great stuff in it.

  • Lee Lofland

    Terry – LiveScan is normally pretty easy to use, but it’s a computer so anything’s possible.

    Auntieamy – I’m not sure what they did with the prints. Yours may be in a file somewhere, but I have my doubts. I’m sure that over time a lack of storage space has resulted in them being tossed or tucked away in a basement or something. You could ask, but my guess is that no one will remember, especially since it’s been that long ago.

    Most departments give the copy of the prints to the parents so they’ll have them in case they’re ever needed.

    Thanks for picking up a copy of my book.

  • Terry

    My thought at the time was operator error; it took over 20 minutes to get my prints done.

    Cute kid. I have TWO copies of your book. CRS strikes again.

  • Lee Lofland

    Reminder – I’ll be teaching three workshops at the Emerald Coast Writers Conference next week in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. I hope to see some of you there.

    I’m teaching:

    Understand what motivates real-life villains and how to transform their psychopathic behaviors to the written page.

    Journey inside the crime scene. Find out how detectives uncover and utilize evidence and clues to solve cases. Discover the sights, sounds, and smells experienced by real-life investigators. Learn how to activate your reader’s senses. An interesting and fun workshop.

    Learn the characteristics of a good detective. What makes them tick? How do they differ from their uniformed counterparts? How can they tell when a suspect is lying? How do they obtain confessions? Do they really have a sixth sense? Do undercover detectives carry weapons? What’s it like to work undercover? This workshop delves into the sometimes secretive world of police detectives and they really solve cases. Intensive.

  • Rhonda Lane

    Okay. This is probably a stupid question, but I just have to ask — in the FBI photo, where the deceased is lying on his stomach, is he lying on a pillow? It sure looks like it. Or an air mattress?

    Plus, the ME/lab tech in the photo doesn’t look like he’s wearing gloves for the collection, either. I’m guessing that gloves would be SOP?

  • Lee Lofland

    Rhonda – Good question. I really don’t have a clue what he’s lying on. This is a really old training photo (Finally, something that’s before my time).

    I can remember the time when people didn’t always wear gloves, even EMS personnel. I’ve seen medical folks up to their elbows in blood and it never occured to them to slip on a pair of gloves or a mask. Times have certainly changed.

  • melanie atkins

    Wow. This is fascinating. Wish I could make that conference in Ft. Walton Beach. That session on detectives is right up my alley.

  • Carla F

    I have a question related to evidence (not fingerprinting, sorry; I’m a day late and a dollar short). I was asked to critique a MS in which a detective sits down in the suspect’s car as he searched for evidence (after the crime was committed). My initial thought was that the detective wouldn’t do that because doing so contaminates the crime scene. Then I remembered I could ask the expert. Am I off base in my assumption?

    Thanks for this blog; I’ve learned a ton and renewed my respect for law enforcement professionals!

  • Lee Lofland

    Melanie – You mean you didn’t get enough of this stuff at Forensic University?

    I’m also going to presenting workshops at these conferences:

    Scene of the Crime Conference
    Wichita, Kansas
    April 11-13

    Pikes Peak Writers Conference
    Colorado Springs, Colorado
    April 25-27

    Missouri Romance Writers of America
    St. Louis, Missouri
    May 17

    Midwest Writers Workshop
    Muncie, Indiana
    July 24-27

    Willamette Writers Conference
    Portland, Oregon
    August 1-3

    Baltimore, Maryland
    October 9-11

    I also have a few more invitations that haven’t quite been confirmed.

  • Lee Lofland

    Carla – At some point someone has to get inside the car to look for and gather evidence. The investigator should take photos and she should “suit up” before climbing into the car. But you’re right, the detective shouldn’t just climb inside as soon as she stumbles on the scene.

    I’ve seen officers, especially patrol officers (the first guys on the scene) dive right in looking for registration, etc. That’s a definite mistake. Yes, they destroy evidence.

  • melanie atkins

    Oh my! You’re all over the place. Wish I could make one of those conferences. And no, I didn’t get enough at Forensic U. I’m planning to make a return trip if they have another conference next year, as someone mentioned. Hope they do. I’ve been talking it up and showing a lot of people your book. It’s a wonderful resource. Keep up the good work!

  • Lee Lofland

    Melanie – Thanks for the PR!

    I think SinC is planning to do another Forensic U. I hope so.

  • htgreen

    Does anyone have a lesson plan for finger printing dead people? We are doing a class I need some material which can be repurposed.

  • Kathleen

    I have a question regarding a fingerprinting a body that has been pulled from the water in a severely bloated condition. How would one obtain fingerprints in this case? It a question for my fingerprints class and I am coming up with little info. Thank you for any help you can give me!!

  • Lee Lofland

    Good question, Kathleen. And, of course, the answer would depend on numerous factors. How long was the body submerged? What were the conditions? Animals? Vegetation? Temperature? And on and on. But, let’s say conditions are optimum for your scenario. Therefore, my answer would be…maybe.

    But, here’s how you could try to get a usable print.

    1. Allow moisture to completely evaporate from the skin (This may involve removing sections of the skin).
    2. Superglue (cyanoecrylate fume) the area while warming it with a heat source. Warm, not cooking. 10 minutes or so.
    3. Immediately spray on Ardrox florescent dye.
    4. Allow to air dry for 60 seconds and then rinse with purified water.
    5. Add pink or black magnetic powder to the area and then go to a dark room and expose it to a 365mm UV light.

    The print should be visible with some pretty good ridge detail. Enough detail, actually, for AFIS.

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