What Is an Autopsy? - Definition, Procedure & Results

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  • 0:03 Definition
  • 0:17 Types
  • 0:44 Procedure
  • 3:35 Results
  • 3:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Earl Crowe

Earl has over 20 years of lecturing experience and has a master's degree in criminal justice.

In this lesson, we'll learn about the procedure known as an autopsy, including the definition of this term, the actual procedure, and what the results can mean to those left behind.


An autopsy is a complete external and internal medical examination of the body that occurs after death. An autopsy is completed in an attempt to determine the cause of death when it's not readily known.


There are two types of autopsies: The forensic autopsy, and the medical autopsy. A forensic autopsy is usually ordered when a person dies under suspicious circumstances, the death is trauma-related, or if the death is sudden and the person was healthy. A medical autopsy is completed when family wants to know more about the health-related issue that caused the death, and to see if there are any health conditions that could affect other living relatives.


Whether you are doing a medical or forensic autopsy, the standard procedure remains the same. The autopsy starts with the pathologist completing the external examination of the body. This examination is completed in order to document all scars, marks, tattoos, medical devices, and anything else the doctor feels is relevant.

The examiner will use a diagram that shows the decedent's name, age, race, sex, autopsy or case number, and the date the procedure was conducted. The external exam starts by documenting everything from head to toe. This includes hair color and length, eye color and pupil size, condition of teeth, any defects, height, and weight. A full set of photographs are also taken during each step of the autopsy in order to have visual documentation.

After completion of the external examination and an overall set of photographs have been taken, the autopsy technician or the pathologist will begin to dissect the body using the Y Incision technique. Using a scalpel, an incision is made at the shoulders and continues to the sternum making the top part of the Y. Then one single incision is made from the sternum to the top of the pubic area, making sure that the incision loops around the belly button.

The next step is to reflect the skin back from the chest plate in order to expose the chest plate and ribs. Once the autopsy technician or pathologist checks the chest plate and rib cage for any defects, a stryker saw is used to cut through the clavicle bone. The cut continues downward through the ribs, and the chest plate is removed, exposing the internal organs.

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