Autopsy 101 – Identifying the Body


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Mindy Mejia, author of The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman gives Crime Files a step by step guide to autopsy identification methods.

Posted on March 10, 2017 in Guest Author
Tags: Author Content, Crime books, autopsy, hattie hoffman, mindy mejia

The first step in any autopsy is identifying the body. While many TV shows and movies

go straight to DNA, it’s rarely the preferred choice by actual medical examiners.


Here’s a rundown of the main autopsy ID methods:


  • Visual identification. Most bodies can be identified visually, but the clock is ticking.

We all start to look alike after decomposition kicks in. Fun fact: Even as we bloat and

our skin turns green, our eye color never changes. The clouding of the cornea can

obscure the perception of the hue, but we keep our eye color even in death.


  • Personal effects. There’s no need to incur the time and expense of DNA

identification when the body is found with a wallet (driver’s license!) and a wedding

ring that can be positively identified by family.


  • Dental records. This is secret weapon #1 for medical examiners. Matching

antemorten (living) to postmortem dental records is almost as exclusionary as DNA

and much quicker. Teeth are hardy; they stand up to fire, impact injuries, and all

sorts of other fatal incidents. So hold still the next time you have your X-rays at the

dentist. They might become the most important pictures of your life (read: death).


  • Fingerprints. Secret weapon #2. Fingerprints get relatively rapid results, but they

depend on having access to the antemortem prints.


  • Serial Numbers. That’s right. Grandpa’s hip replacement has a serial number

etched into it and a quick database search from the manufacturer will confirm his

identity. Unless grandpa was involved in some shady hip trading…


  • DNA. If all else fails, medical examiners will turn to the costly and time consuming

DNA option. Fun fact: If there’s no antemortem DNA on file, the lab can check

mitochondrial DNA, which is stored in the nucleus of every cell and comes entirely

from maternal input. A mother or maternal sibling’s DNA is used for comparison on

mitochondrial DNA.


So the next time you see a movie cop swirling a vial and getting a DNA match in

seconds, shake your head. You know better.


The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman is out now in hardback

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