The word autopsy, derived from the Greek language, literally means "see for yourself." Morbid as it may sound, an autopsy is a surgical operation performed on a corpse by qualified physicians. Such doctors are specialized in the field of pathology and are known as pathologists. Unlike medical school dissections performed on cadavers for purposes of educating students in anatomy, autopsies are conducted to find out what specifically killed a person. They can also reveal the overall state of health of the deceased during life.
Any surviving family member of someone who has died can request an autopsy. In other instances, the law may require it. This especially holds true when foul play, such as homicide, is suspected by police. At other times, a person who was seemingly healthy can die suddenly for no apparent reason, and thus an autopsy will be done to find the answer. Autopsies can also take place in the event of a public health concern, such as with a mysterious outbreak of disease or questionable healthcare practices. In addition to the preceding circumstances, autopsies may also be ordered if the deceased had no attending physician, was attended for less than 24 hours preceding death, or if the attending physician is apprehensive about signing the death certificate. In any case, every US state's as well as many other countries' governing bodies can order an autopsy. Depending on the jurisdiction, those who make such decisions and/or give advice will vary. A coroner is an elected official that works in conjunction with a Medical Examiner. The Medical Examiner (ME) is typically a pathologist. Together, those holding those respective positions will make the call whether or not to order an autopsy.
In special circumstances, such as with the death of a firefighter while on the job, the US government and individual state governments adhere to a rather strict protocol. Firefighters face one of the most hazardous occupations out there, and due to the nature of their work, more risk factors in their deaths are taken into consideration. Detailed information can be found here.
Before a single incision is made, the body is thoroughly examined. Assuming the entire body is intact, height and weight measurements are taken. Scars, lesions, and past surgical wounds are noted by location and also described. It should be noted here that in the case of family-requested autopsies that are not ordered by a Coroner's office or law enforcement agency, restrictions on how far to take an autopsy can be in effect and thus limited in scope.
Assuming there are no such restrictions, such as that with court-ordered autopsies, a standard procedure will consist of examinations of the chest cavity, abdominal cavity, and the brain. When examining the organs in the chest and abdominal cavities, easy access to these locations is made by means of either a Y or U-shaped incision that begins at the shoulders and meets with the breast bone. Following this, the rest of the incision is a single, vertical separation down to the pubic bone. When examining the brain, an incision is made on the back side of the skull from one ear to the other.
Regardless of where the organs were located, they are typically removed from the body and placed under further scrutiny of dissection and microscopic examination. When the autopsy is completed, the organs may either be returned to the body or donated for research, teaching, or other scientific purposes. The body is then closed back up and the deceased can still be viewed by family and friends in an open-casket wake or funeral service with no worries about appearance.