The final cut

While many of the bodies that go through the Medical Examiner’s office only need external examination, about half of them get an internal autopsy. To open the torso, the pathologist makes a large, Y-shaped incision on the chest, and separates the ribs from the breastbone with a special saw that cuts bone without damaging soft tissues. Major internal organs are then removed and examined individually—the condition of each can yield information on the time, cause, and manner of death. Traces of soot in the lungs might suggest asphyxiation in a fire, broken bones on the left side of the body could mean a right-handed attacker, gunpowder particles in a wound can help identify a particular weapon… any part of the body could hold vital evidence, but it takes a skilled examiner to find it.

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Scalpels and gurneys aren’t the pathologist’s only tools—they also test bodies for toxins, study x-ray images, and perform microscopic examinations of body tissues to figure out how and when a person died.

Photos courtesy Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office