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Forensic Pathology Basic Terminology Explained

Jiaqi Lin

Forensic Pathology is a familiar yet daunting subject in the field of medicine. Many people probably get to know this field and the work of the medical examiner through TV dramas like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Forensic Heroes” or books like “Medical Examiner Dr. Qin.”

However, there is much more and deeper learning and knowledge behind the scenes that one has to understand first. Therefore, in this article, I will be explaining some fundamental terminology in the field of forensic pathology.


First, let’s start with a procedure that every medical examiner has to excel in autopsy. An autopsy is a surgical procedure operated by medical examiners to find out the manner and cause of death of a corpse.

The manner of death can be classified into different categories: natural, accident, suicide, homicide, and undetermined. The medical examiner then has to identify the cause of death, which can be a specific injury, disease, or event that directly led to the death of one.

Complete Report

Moving on to the autopsy itself, there are a few essential steps that have to be conducted to make a complete report. Firstly, the medical examiner has to conduct an external examination to check for signs of injuries, diseases, and, most importantly, rigor and livor mortis in most cases.

Rigor mortis refers to the stiffening of muscles that happens quickly after death. Livor mortis often refers to the movement of blood toward the lower part of the body after the blood ceases to circulate. Moreover, most of the livor mortis will present as dark reddish-purple.

Internal Examination

Next is the scene that most TV dramas don’t usually show in the scene: internal examination. The medical examiner will usually make a Y-shaped incision on the front of the body and dissect organs and tissues to find abnormalities.

Following that, there will be toxicology testing, which consists of a bunch of tests looking for drugs, alcohol, or other toxic substances in a body. The medical examiner then has to write a detailed report to summarize the findings of the autopsy.

Technical Processes

Moving from the anatomy room to the labs, medical examiners also have to conduct some technical processes, such as DNA profiling, diatom analysis, or insect analysis. DNA profiling is a process of analyzing DNA samples from materials like hair or blood to create a genetic profile that can be used for identification.

Diatom analysis is usually used for detecting if the cause of death is drowning or if the body has ever been submerged underwater. Lastly, forensic entomology, which is a term referring to the study and analysis of insects, is also often used by medical examiners at the crime scene. Medical examiners typically have to identify the life cycle of insects to deduce the approximate time of death.


Forensic pathology is an interesting subject in the field of medicine. But unlike the fun and riveting work that we see in most TV dramas, one needs to obtain lots of knowledge and information in order to become a medical examiner. Overall, it’s a very respectable job.


Embar-Seddon, A., & Pass, A. D. (2009). Forensic science. Salem Press.

Clark, M. J. (2005). Autopsy. The Lancet, 366(9499), 1767.

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