Photography: Kirsten Luce

The Slow, Troubling Death of the Autopsy

Why you should get an autopsy if it’s the last thing you do

Samuel Ashworth
Published in
29 min readSep 22, 2020

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Disclaimer: The images in this story may be disturbing for some people.

For most people, the mere word “autopsy” summons up visceral images. Bodies lying cold and blue in a lab, a Y-shaped incision on their naked chest. Sardonic doctors hovering over them with medieval tools. Grim viridian-tinted light, banks of glowing screens. Bullets clinking into steel pans. There is tenebrous music, probably.

It’s nonsense.

The first thing to know about how a real autopsy lab works is that everything TV taught you is wrong. For one thing, there is no blue lighting anywhere — this is the dubious logic of CSI, in which autopsies are conducted in atmospherically dim rooms. In reality, the lighting is dazzlingly white and stark. The floors are brushed cement, the walls are white, and the tables made of stainless steel.

There are also no glowing screens, no projected holograms, no computers that can instantly spit out a list of every foreign substance in a person’s system. Instead, there are basic tools: scalpels, aging Dell computers, endless cotton towels, long-handled pruning shears that retail for $39.99 at Home Depot.

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Samuel Ashworth
Elemental

Samuel Ashworth’s journalism, fiction, and criticism have appeared in the Washington Post magazine, Eater, Longreads, Hazlitt, and more. He lives in DC.