5 Things You Didn't Know About Autopsies


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Your Last Meal (and Your Poop) Can Contain Forensic Clues
Coroner's collect fluids and even feces from bodies because they can often lend clues about cause of death. D-Keine/Getty Images

Consider yourself fortunate if you've never been told to "run the bowels." That's the nickname given to one of the autopsy room's dirtiest jobs: opening the intestines. Upon removal, these organs are slit horizontally. The small and large intestines of an adult human have a combined length of around 25 feet (7.6 meters), so cutting them open is no easy task.

Extracted poop is normally washed down a medical sink, but sometimes it plays a diagnostic role. Hard stool clumps may indicate fecal impaction, a potentially fatal condition that leaves the colon plugged by dung. In addition to feces, running the bowels can reveal polyps, tumors and other things of great value to pathologists.

That brings us to undigested food. The stuff we eat generally spends about four to six hours inside our stomachs before moving onward to the intestines. So if any recognizable food turns up inside the stomach of the person being autopsied, chances are the deceased party died shortly after he or she consumed it.

Such evidence can be a godsend for forensic teams. In 2010, two masked men tried to rob an Oregon coffee kiosk at gunpoint. Things got violent when the barista pulled out a firearm of his own. One of the attackers was killed, but the other escaped.

While probing the dead gunman's stomach, an examiner removed half of a french fry. Now potatoes are easy to digest and usually break down within an hour. Clearly, the deceased had gobbled up his last meal shortly before expiring. And that's not all: An analyst recognized the (mostly intact) spud as a Wendy's french fry. Sure enough, when investigators checked out the security footage at a nearby Wendy's restaurant, they were able to identify both criminals and apprehend the survivor.

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