Exhumation Autopsy: Strategic and Practical Perspectives

Few forensic endeavors raise more questions and intrigue than exhumation autopsy. In nearly all societies and throughout the millennia, the grave is sacrosanct. Protected by both cultural norms and statute, it is exceedingly rare to disturb a final resting place. In some situations, however, local authorities will grant permission to perform exhumation when there is a compelling forensic reason. Such reasons may exist within civil litigation when an autopsy was not performed, or when allegations arise that an autopsy was performed improperly.

What is an Exhumation Autopsy?

Exhumation, also known as disinterment, is the act of removing a corpse from a place of burial. When performed for forensic reasons, it is known as an exhumation autopsy. Exhumation autopsy is an extremely rare event since the cause and manner of death is nearly always certified prior to burial. Certification typically occurs via the decedent’s physician, by a physician present near the time of death, or by a medical examiner who performed a postmortem investigation.

In civil litigation, situations may arise where the cause or manner of death is in dispute. For example, a primary care provider may sign a death certificate attesting to a general cause of death (e.g. “cardiac arrest”) based upon speculation rather than medical fact. If the decedent’s cause of death is disputed in a medical negligence claim, then an exhumation autopsy may provide a materially relevant answer. The same is true in cases where the manner of death is certified as “natural” or “accidental” despite allegations of homicide. Sometimes, unless the body has been cremated, the only clues to the cause, mechanism, and manner of death may come from exhumation.

The cause of death is the actual reason that a person died, the mechanism of death is the event that caused it, and the manner of death is the legal classification of the cause. For example, a person may suffer a urinary tract infection (mechanism) before succumbing to septic shock (cause) and a natural death (manner). The manner of death must be certified into one of five categories: natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, or undetermined.

When to Consider Exhumation for Your Case

To consider exhumation, once must first have a compelling question for which there is a scientific basis to believe that exhumation will provide an answer. The body must also be amenable to yielding the desired data, and that will predominantly depend upon the data that is sought, the elapsed time since burial, the disposition of the corpse (e.g. embalmed), and whether there was a prior autopsy. For example, bony fractures may be identified even decades after they occur, while evidence of an acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) may disappear in days or months.

Forensic Pathologists specialize in determining the cause, mechanism, and manner of death. Since not all questions can be solved with exhumation, and since not all bodies are amenable to delayed autopsy or reautopsy, the first step is to retain a Forensic Pathology expert. A Board-Certified expert in Forensic Pathology can determine whether exhumation will lead to meaningful results, and can also provide guidance for statutory compliance, permitting, and logistics. Before considering an exhumation autopsy, work with your Forensic Pathology expert to assure that exhumation is the best option for your case.

Do you need a Forensic Pathology expert to determine the appropriate steps to establish cause and manner of death in your case? Contact Elite today for a free consultation.

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