In order to understand how an autopsy works, it helps to first understand what they are and why they are done.
An autopsy is the medical examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death. Autopsies are performed when someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly while in apparently good health. Autopsies may also be performed at the request of the family of the deceased.
There are two types of autopsies:
The forensic autopsy or medical-legal autopsy is the kind you most often see on TV and in movies. According to Dr. Kiesel, "The forensic autopsy spends almost as much time on the external surfaces of the body as it does on the internal surfaces, 'cause that's where evidence is." Forensic autopsies try to find answers to the cause of death as part of an overall police investigation.
On TV shows like CSI or The X-Files, medical examiners seem to be a major component in the investigation and can use DNA evidence for just about everything. Dr. Kiesel commented on some of the more common TV-driven misconceptions:
The clinical autopsy is usually performed in hospitals by pathologists or the attending physician to determine a cause of death for research and study purposes. Dr. Kiesel explains:
In the eyes of the law, all deaths fall into one of five categories of causes. In the next section, we'll look at the five manners of death.