An autopsy is a detailed and careful medical examination of a person's body and its organs after death, to help establish the cause of death.

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This interactive follows the human autopsy process from start to finish including an external examination, opening the body, viewing internal organs, removing the organs and weighing them, removing the brain, replacing all organs and closing the body.

The step by step demonstration of what happens during an autopsy procedure is best viewed on a desktop computer screen ie. a screen larger than 1024 pixel width - and using Chrome web browser.

When viewing on a tablet, please load in landscape orientation.

To view the text from each step of the autopsy, please select relevant sections as below.

The following is a step by step demonstration of what happens during an autopsy procedure.

Warning: some people might find this section disturbing. It contains detailed information about what happens in an autopsy.

<< Begin Examination >>

The first step in any forensic autopsy is the external examination of the body.

The forensic pathologist performs a detailed external examination of the body. The results are recorded and all physical characteristics are listed.

The body must be measured and weighed.

<<Take a Look>>

Select the hotspots to discover what forensic pathologists look for in particular parts of the body and the equipment they use.

You can select the chest, fingers, shoulders, legs and elbows to find more about them.

  • AUTOPSY TABLE - The autopsy table is a waist-high or height adjustable stainless steel table with running water to facilitate washing away all the blood that is released during the procedure. The autopsy table is a slanted tray (for drainage) with raised edges (to keep blood and fluids from flowing onto the floor).
  • CHEST - The forensic pathologist will pay particular attention to the external examination in suspicious deaths - looking at the clothes or paying attention to any unusual smells or odours.
  • SHOULDER - The forensic pathologist will examine the skin for any abrasions, cuts bruises, distinguishing marks or tattoos on the body.
  • ELBOW - The forensic pathologist will test for rigor mortis by bending the elbow and knees or opening the jaw to see if they move or not.
  • FINGERS - The forensic pathologist will look under the fingernails as valuable forensic information can be trapped there.
  • LEG - The forensic pathologist will look for any lividity (blood pooling) to help determine the time since death. Lividity can tell the pathologist a lot about the position of the body after death.

<< Next Step >>

To expose the internal organs the pathologist must open the body. Select which shape the first cut is made in: X Y Z

<< Begin Cut >>

The first cut known as the 'Y' incision, is made. The arms of the Y extend from the front of each shoulder to the bottom end of the breastbone. The tail of the Y extends from the sternum to the pubic bone and typically deviates to avoid the navel.

The incision is very deep, extending to the rib cage on the chest, and completely through the abdominal wall below that. The skin from this cut is peeled back, with the top flap pulled over the face.

<< Next step >>

Following the Y incision the ribs are sawn off to expose the internal organs. The sternal plate or anterior chest wall is cut away, to expose the organs underneath.

Select each organ to reveal its name:

  • Lungs
  • Heart
  • Liver
  • Stomach
  • Large intestine
  • Small intestine

<< Next step >>

Each pathology service has its own autopsy technique. The most common way to remove the organs is known as the Rokitansky method. This method involves:

  • Removing all the organs at once (correct)
  • Removing one organ at a time and replacing it before moving onto the next (wrong)
  • R

The Rokitansky method involves removing the body organs all at once. That is, the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and spleen etc are removed in one block and then dissected on the autopsy table. The organs are dissected one-by-one and during the examination the forensic pathologist will collect small samples of tissue for further examination under the microscope.

Remove all the organs from the body and place them on the sink area.

<< Next step >>

To remove the brain, an incision is made in the back of the scalp from one ear to the other. The scalp is cut and separated from the underlying skull and pulled forward. The top of the skull is removed using a vibrating saw. The entire brain is then gently lifted out of the cranial vault.

Remove the brain

The brain is then either cut fresh or is placed in a 20 per cent solution of formalin to fix it for future analysis with the consent of the Coroner and the senior next of kin.

<< Next step >>

All organs, except for the intestines and stomach are weighed.

Take the organs that are to be weighed one at a time from the tray to the scales and put the organs into the correct order of weight (lightest to heaviest) back in the sink.

<< Next step >>

The pathologist drains the intestines in a sink to remove any undigested food and faeces that remain. The stomach is cut open and the contents are examined.

This process is done:

  • To help determine time and cause of death Correct - By understanding the identity and degree of digestion of foods (or other items such as pills) analysis may help determine the time of death.
  • To avoid unnecessary decomposition (Wrong!)
  • To reduce odour (Wrong!)

<<Next step>>

Following the examination, organs are returned to the body except for the small fragments of tissue sampled for microscopic examination. The organs are replaced in the body cavities. Sometimes absorbent, filler material is used to replace organs that are not returned.

The Coroner and the senior next of kin will be notified of any organs and/or larger fragments of tissue retained after the examination has been completed. The senior next of kin is asked about preference to return these retained specimens to the body and or respectful disposal thereof after the investigation has been completed.

<<Return the organs>>

<< Next step >>

After the pathologist has finished the examination and the organs are returned to the body, the post mortem technician will sew back up the body.

Once the Y incision and the head are sewn up, the autopsy (without brain and tissue analysis) is complete. Stitching of the incision is like that on a baseball.

<< Next step >>

Discover our past exhibition information about Death: the last taboo

Death is a process rather than an event. Learn more about the process and the many natural and human processes that occur after our death.

Learn more