Opening up bodies to establish the cause of death has been going on for a very long time. The word ‘autopsy’ comes, like orgies and tax-evasion, from the Greeks, derived from the words autos and opsis. A rough translation being “to see for oneself”, which makes a lot of sense given what’s involved. Whilst rare in ancient Greece, there were a few high profile autopsies, notably for Julius Ceasar whose bloody death you might imagine didn’t technically require much digging around his insides. Caesar was famously stabbed to death on the steps of the Theatre of Pompey by a braying mob of disgruntled Senators. His famous last words, “Et tu Brute?” were, as a passing point of mild interest, derived from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and are not grounded in any actual fact. Those present reported he actually said nothing. But then there’s not much to say after being stabbed twenty-three times by work colleagues. Either way the physician who later got to do the honours, announced that it was the second knife wound that had done for JC’s ticker. The practice didn’t work for all ancient societies though, many of those with a more superstitious leaning, shied off the disfigurement of dead people as it prevented their spirit from entering the afterlife. Not good news.

Autopsies are carried out by pathologists, a profession that raises as many questions as it does answers. Days spent in latex gloves cutting open dead people is only really for those of a specific psychological bent prone, one suspects, to a dark sense of humour and a deep unease with small talk. Forensic autopsies are though essential, essential in finding out how the whodunit did it, and essential in understanding the causes of death which help to advance medicine. By slicing and dicing those who failed to pick fate’s googly, scientists have been able to get a better understanding of disease and develop medicine to kill off any number of infectious nasties. And that can only be a good thing. A study of autopsies also found that approximately a third of all death certificates are wrong, and produce findings that are not suspected before the cadaver copped it, not that the cadaver would likely care a great deal by then. Families might care though; psychologists all being quick to tell us we all need closure, for a small fee. Amen to that.

When the stiff arrives at the morgue then, it is typically met by a diener, a German word for servant, although in the politically correct age of EU diktats the diener is often referred to as the ‘anatomical pathology technologist’. Either way, the body gets unzipped and man-handled onto the cold slab, familiar to fans of hit dramas such as Silent Witness, where it waits to be photographed. One up from days spent dismembering dead people, are days spent taking photographs of dead people, but then work is work. Despite the recent frugal fashion of getting married on a Friday, there aren’t too many weddings happening mid-week and bills need paying. Once the photographer is happy, the clothes are then removed and the body gets a once over with an ultraviolet light to catch any stain or blemish that would have been missed by the naked eye. Samples are taken, things like hair, nails, that sort of stuff and the body is then cleaned up and weighed. A rubber block is then placed under the back of the body to lift up the chest to make it easier to cut open for the internal examination. When the chest is open, there are various ways of getting the internal organs out. Indeed, there are techniques, named like the footballer’s Cruyff turn, after those who first pioneered them. The Letulle technique essentially involves rolling up the sleeves and scooping them all out en-masse, whereas the Virchow method involves a more meticulous removal of each organ, one by one. All in all, a somewhat sticky business.

Once the pathologist has done all his, or her, poking around everything is put back in. This is in accordance with the Human Tissue Act of 2004 which came about after a couple of horrific scandals involving the illegal retention of organs in a small number of NHS hospitals who instead of putting everything back in, chose to keep them in containers in the storeroom. In one of the worst cases, two hospitals had FedEx-ed thymus glands, which had been removed from live children during heart surgery, to pharmaceutical companies in return for cash. One of the hospitals even went as far as keeping more than a thousand foetuses that had been miscarried or aborted without any sort of parental consent. A nasty, nasty affair. Anyway, the organs are then put back in the body in a plastic bag to prevent leakage. The flaps and caps are all sown back together and the body gets a pish-pish of some Lynx, or whatever else is to hand. It’s then off to the funeral parlour to be boxed up and given a send-off with expensive flowers and a bit of I vow to thee my country. Top effort.

Autopsies are an essential service to society but, unlike the gym and being nice to work colleagues, are probably not something to be making any New Year resolutions over. Best stick to Silent Witness.


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