What Is Body Identification?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 04 February 2020
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Body identification is the process of determining the name and details of a deceased individual. This may be simple or complex, depending on the circumstances and the condition of the body. It is sometimes necessary for forensic purposes, where investigations may determine whether crimes have occurred and if it is possible to prosecute someone for them. Families also rely on body identification for closure, to definitively determine whether a loved one has died. It is not possible in all cases.

The simplest form of body identification can occur when someone passes away with witnesses present who can quickly identify the deceased. When someone dies in a hospital, for instance, the hospital can generate paperwork for use in body identification. Other easy identifications may occur when a body is fresh and friends of family can identify it on the basis of distinguishing features.

This activity has been immortalized in a number of crime dramas, where an obligatory identification scene may be inserted during the course of the story. People may be asked to definitively identify someone after a homicide or unattended death where officials want to be absolutely sure who died. Supporting documentation like dental records, drivers licenses, and similar materials can be used to match the body with the person, and confirm the identity for legal purposes.


Sometimes a recent body with most identifying features intact cannot be identified. In this situation, a medical examiner may conduct a thorough investigation to document information about the case, and can retain this information on file. The body may be buried or cremated, but the file remains available. If a missing persons report or request from an investigator comes in, the examiner may be able to revisit the case and identify the body. Genetic evidence is commonly retained in the form of hair or blood samples to make it possible to compare the body to a known sample at some point in the future.

In other cases, a body is too badly damaged for a positive identification via visual means. This can occur in cases of fires and severe injuries, or when only skeletal remains are available. Forensic techniques can be applied to body identification in these instances. These cases start with the development of a profile, like a white woman in her 30s, and can be narrowed down to match the identity with any missing people. Some bodies also bear clues like occupational markers, distinctive signs of wear on the bones associated with activities like being an athlete or a waitress, which can help narrow down the identification.

Specific medical records in these cases can help an examiner confirm an identity. Dental records, skeletal x-rays, and medical history can be useful; for example, someone might have had a distinctive fracture in childhood that would still be visible on the bone. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) evidence can also be used to match unknown remains with a sample from a missing person or family member.


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