Frequently Asked Questions About Forensic Pathology

Q: What is a pathologist?

A pathologist is a physician who studies a variety of natural diseases and works in a hospital, laboratory, morgue or private setting.


Q: What is a forensic pathologist?

Forensic pathology is a specialized area of pathology. The forensic pathologist performs autopsies to determine the cause and manner of death in situations falling under the jurisdiction of the local medical examiner or coroner. These situations include violent deaths such as homicides, accidents and suicides. Other categories are suspicious, sudden and unexpected deaths.

Q: What is a medical examiner?

A medical examiner is a doctor who has a medical degree and has specialized education and experience in the field of pathology and forensic pathology.

Q: What is the difference between a medical examiner and a coroner?

Medical examiners and coroners provide a similar service to their communities. Coroners are part of an older system with origins that date back to England many centuries ago. They are usually elected lay individuals who contract with physicians to provide autopsies and medical expertise to support their investigations. In contrast, the medical examiner system is an American creation approximately a century old. Medical examiners are almost always appointed to their positions, and they are physicians with training in medicolegal death investigation.

Q: Which deaths come under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner?

All deaths due to trauma, even if admitted to a hospital; deaths not due to trauma that occur in the emergency room of a hospital prior to admission; and all deaths occurring outside a hospital other than nursing-home deaths of natural causes. Also, persons in custody of law enforcement or incarcerated and those who are on the job when a terminal incident occurs are also under the medical examiner's jurisdiction.

Q: What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is the postmortem (after death) examination of a body, including the internal organs and structures after dissection, so as to determine the cause of death or the nature of pathological changes.

Q: Is an autopsy necessary?

An autopsy may answer certain questions, which may not be answered without the examination. It is up to the discretion of a medical examiner to perform an autopsy. Most medical examiners have determined that autopsies should be performed on all cases involving criminal violence, homicides, suicides and accidents; also sudden death, when in apparent good health, unattended by a practicing physician, in police custody, prison or other penal institutions; and suspicious or unusual circumstances.

Q: How long does it take to perform an autopsy?

The time it takes to perform an autopsy depends on the presence and nature of natural disease and/or injury. Autopsies average a couple of hours.

Q: Does the medical examiner need authorization from the family to do an autopsy?

It is not necessary to obtain authorization from the family.

Q: Does an autopsy disfigure or affect the appearance of the body?

The basic autopsy involves making a Y-incision (cutting across the midline of the chest and abdomen) and cutting along the top and sides of the head. Although the process sounds disfiguring, autopsy incisions are rarely noticeable after completion of the autopsy if the body is clothed.

Q: What is a death certificate?

A death certificate is a legal document that lists the particulars of an individual's death. It contains identifying information such as name, age and sex, as well as the date and time of death (or when the person was found), place of death and the cause and manner of death. The death certificate indicates whether or not an autopsy was performed and contains the signature of the certifying physician (which can be the medical examiner).

Q: What does cause and manner of death mean?

Cause of death refers to the specific reason a person dies, for example, a gunshot wound to the head, atherosclerotic heart disease or drug intoxication. Manner of death falls under one of several categories: homicide, accident, suicide, natural or undetermined.