How Autopsies Work

A body awaits examination in an autopsy bay. See more death pictures.

When someone dies under mysterious circumstances, what happens next? Most states in the United States have laws that require certain types of deaths be investigated:

  • injury
  • delayed complications of injuries
  • poisoning
  • infectious complications
  • foul play
  • people who die with no attending physician

If the death meets any of the above criteria, it must be reported to the local medical examiner or coroner for investigation and a legal determination of the cause of death. The main tool of this investigation is the autopsy.


The process of examining the dead to discover how they died is the subject of many TV shows and movies, but the facts aren't always so clear-cut. In an interview with Atlanta's Fulton County Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Eric Kiesel, HowStuffWorks cut through the mystery of this often misunderstood process and learned the details of the preparation, procedure, and tools needed to perform an autopsy.

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