An autopsy can be requested by the decedent’s next of kin or, in cases of suspected foul play or a certain few other sets of circumstances, required by law.
The medical examiner who performs the autopsy examines the body both externally and internally. Often, organs and body fluids will be removed, specimens of which may be sent to laboratories for tests and analyses.
As one might suspect, horror stories sometimes feature autopsies. After all, the surgical dissection of dead bodies is a suitably gruesome and ghastly topic, even when it is performed in a brightly illuminated, sterile environment by professional personnel. One of Stephen King’s short stories, “Autopsy Room Four” (in the Everything’s Eventual anthology) concerns a the awakening of a man who is only believed to be dead during an autopsy that is being performed upon him--without, of course, benefit of anesthesia. However, even if anesthesia were to have been administered to him, he’d be in for a truly horrific ordeal, as an explanation of the process makes clear.
First, the corpse is subjected to an external examination. The body arrives in a body bag or covered by an evidence sheet to preserve any material associated with the corpse. After the body is photographed, the medical examiner makes notes about the clothing that the body wears and about any material that may be on the body, perhaps with the aid of an ultraviolet light. Specimens of hair and nails may be harvested before the body is stripped. Any wounds that are present are examined, and then the body is washed, weighed, and measured. The body is placed upon an examination table, where the medical examiner, using a tape recorder, notes such distinguishing characteristics as the deceased person’s age, sex, ethnicity, hair color, eye color, birthmarks, scars, moles, tattoos, and so forth.
Following the completion of the external examination, the medical examiner conducts an internal examination. A team of experts may assist him or her in this examination, just as he or she may be assisted in the external examination. A body block is placed under the cadaver’s back, which elevates the chest and causes the arms and neck to fall back. The medical examiner opens the abdomen of the body by making a “Y”-shaped incision from behind the ears and down the neck to the breastbone and then to the pubic bone or the less typical “T” incision from the shoulders, along the clavicles, and down to the pubic bone. The medical examiner saws through the ribs and removes the ribcage and the attached sternum (collectively called the chest plate) to expose the heart, the lungs, and the other internal organs. The organs are removed, examined, weighed, and measured. Specimens may be sent for laboratory analysis. Blood vessels may also be examined. Following the examination of the abdomen, the skull is opened. The medical examiner cuts from a point behind one ear, over the crown of the head, to a point behind the other ear, and the scalp is drawn down, over the front of the skull. The medical examiner uses a saw to cut around the top of the skull, lefts away the resulting cap, and, after separating the brain from the spinal cord, removes the brain.
Following the autopsy, the abdominal cavity is packed with cotton and the organs, inside leak proof plastic bags, are replaced inside the abdomen. The flaps of skin are returned to their former positions and all the incisions are sewn shut again. The body then can be embalmed and viewed by family and friends inside the casket without there being visible evidence of the autopsy. The Virtual Autopsy lets would-be medical examiners perform virtual autopsies upon several imaginary corpses in order to ascertain the causes of their respective deaths.
The corpses of many famous men and women have been subjected to autopsies, including Jon Benet Ramsey, Tupac Shakur, Janis Joplin, John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth. Photographs of their corpse are shown on Celebrity Morgue’s website.
In a letter to his mother, Army Assistant Surgeon General Edward Curtis wrote of his personal thoughts during the autopsy:
As I looked at the mass of soft gray and white substance that I was carefully washing, it was impossible to realize that it was that mere clay upon whose workings, but the day before, rested the hopes of the nation. I felt more profoundly impressed than ever with the mystery of that unknown something which may be named 'vital spark' as well as anything else, whose absence or presence makes all the immeasurable difference between an inert mass of matter owning obedience to no laws but those covering the physical and chemical forces of the universe, and on the other hand, a living brain by whose silent, subtle machinery a world may be ruled.
In addition to King’s “Autopsy Room Four,” several other horror stories (these in the cinematographic medium) feature autopsies:
- Cheerleader Autopsy
- Horror Express
- Saw IV
A television special showed what was claimed to have been the autopsy of an extraterrestrial corpse that had been recovered from a UFO that had crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. In reality, the footage of the autopsy was a hoax:
According to Santilli, a set was constructed in the living room of an empty flat in Rochester Square, Camden Town, London. John Humphreys, an artist and sculptor, was employed to construct two dummy alien bodies over a period of three weeks, using casts containing sheep brains set in raspberry jam, chicken entrails and knuckle joints obtained from S.C. Crosby Wholesale Butchers in Smithfield meat market, London. Humphreys also played the role of the chief scientist undertaking the examination, in order to allow him to control the effects being filmed.
Note: Photographs are courtesy of Celebrity Morgue.
“Everyday Horrors: Autopsies” is part of a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured on Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.