What are Autopsy Photos?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Autopsy photos are photographs taken of a body during the course of an examination by a coroner, medical examiner, or similar legal professional. These photographs are designed to supplement the written autopsy report which discusses the condition of the body and the manner of death, and they are entered into the permanent record on the case. Autopsy results, sometimes including photographs, are available to members of the public by request in certain regions of the world.

Autopsy photos are taken during a coroner's examination.
Autopsy photos are taken during a coroner's examination.

In some cases, a medical examiner retains an assistant who takes photographs throughout the autopsy process, documenting the steps taken by the medical examiner and the findings of the autopsy. Other medical examiners take their own autopsy photos. As with other forms of forensic photography, the goal with autopsy photos is to create an accurate, clear record without sensationalization. The medical examiner starts with overview photographs, documenting the body as it is brought into the lab and as it is stripped of clothing for examination. Then, the camera moves in for more detailed midrange shots, followed by focus on areas of interest.

Autopsy photos related to sudden death cases may be particularly beneficial to coroners.
Autopsy photos related to sudden death cases may be particularly beneficial to coroners.

Medical examiners use autopsy photos to document findings of note, ranging from distinctive bruises to trace evidence found on the body. They are also careful to take pictures before engaging in any activity which will disturb or damage evidence, as for example before making the Y-incision to access the body cavity for the purpose of examination. Photographs are also used to document the procedures used by the medical examiner in case these procedures are challenged in court or during the course of investigation.

In addition to being used in the autopsy report to document the state of the body, autopsy photos are also used in the course of an investigation to identify issues of interest, such as a boot print on a body which could be traced to a suspect, and they are used in court, to present the case. Police officers may also utilize the photographs to search for an identification of an unknown victim, distributing head shots so that people who recognize the victim can call with information.

Autopsies are usually conducted in the case of any suspicious or unattended death, and they may also be requested by doctors or hospitals when a patient dies for a reason which is not readily discernible, or when a doctor wants more information about the course of a patient's disease. Family members should be aware that while they can request a complete autopsy file, autopsy results can be traumatic to review, and it can be a good idea to ask for a simplified and redacted autopsy report to avoid seeing things which may arouse discomfort.

A coroner may test for the presence of harmful chemicals during an autopsy.
A coroner may test for the presence of harmful chemicals during an autopsy.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@bythewell - I don't really like those pictures being available to the public, but I do think it's necessary in the legal sense. If there was no way to monitor autopsy photographs it could easily be misused by authorities to claim something happened when it didn't or vice versa.

That's the kind of thing that happens in totalitarian regimes all the time and freedom of information is one of the safeguards against it.


@Ana1234 - I think that people who work with the dead do end up becoming less moved by it, in some ways, but it can still hit them sometimes. They wouldn't be able to work on a family member without feeling, for example, and doing an autopsy on a child or infant would also be extremely difficult.

For some reason there are a lot of autopsy photographs available on the internet. You can look up events like the Columbine massacre and autopsy photos will be in the results. I don't know why people want to see things like that. I think it can lead to average people becoming indifferent about death and that's not a good thing.


I wonder if it gets to be ordinary to look at autopsy photos or to even perform autopsies. I don't know if I could ever get used to it.

When my father passed away, it was in Europe while he was on vacation and the authorities ended up cremating him before we were able to transport him home. They didn't do an autopsy, but they did take a photograph of his body, I guess as official proof of what had happened.

My sister showed it to me after she returned with the ashes. I have very mixed feelings about it. I guess it's good because I know for sure that it was him who passed away and there wasn't some kind of mix up. But he looked so different in the photograph. It was him, but it didn't look like him. It was very disturbing.

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