Examining the dead – University of Copenhagen

Examining the dead

This is a general external examination of the deceased. It is performed by the police and a forensic pathologist or a medical officer of health. Such examinations take place in approximately ten per cent of all fatalities.

The external examination determines whether the manner and cause of death can be determined with sufficient certainty or whether further forensic investigation is required. If the process ends with the external examination, the doctor completes the death certificate. The police are then able to release the body for the funeral.

Approximately twenty-five per cent of general external examinations reveal the need for further investigation. The external examination indicates whether an autopsy is required.


This is a more detailed external and internal examination of the body.

An autopsy begins with a CT scan of the deceased where the doctor looks for illnesses and/or injuries. Next the doctors look for external signs of disease and injury. Finally the internal organs are examined. If fractures or bone diseases are suspected, the skeleton is also examined. During forensic autopsies, the doctors always obtain blood and tissue specimens for further tests of a forensic chemistry, microscopic, bacteriological or forensic genetic nature.

The results of the autopsy are included in an autopsy report which is submitted to the police as soon as possible. When the results of any further tests become available a supplementary report is drawn up. If possible this includes the cause of death.

Next-of-kin can obtain information on autopsies from the police or contact the Section for Forensic Pathology to talk to the doctor who performed the autopsy. The autopsy statement is the property of the police and the Section for Forensic Pathology is unable to supply copies.

Crime scene investigations

If the police suspect unlawful killing they summon a forensic pathologist to the location where the body was found. The pathologist records the position and state of the body and examines it for signs of violence. Where possible, he or she assesses the cause, manner, and time of death.

The forensic pathologist also collects biological trace evidence from the deceased. However, investigating the actual scene and securing technical or biological trace evidence is the job of the police technicians.


Forensic anthropology and forensic dentistry are often useful for examining unidentified bodies and human remains or body parts. Their methods can tell us about gender, age, height, distinguishing marks and perhaps the cause of death. We can identify bodies by comparing the deceased’s teeth to dental records, for example.

Danish dentists have a statutory duty to maintain and preserve their patients’ dental records, so identification based on dental information is often a quick, efficient tool in the case of unknown accident victims or other fatalities.

More on the forensic anthropological examination of human remains.