Autopsy can reveal cause of death years after burial – Pathologists

Forensic experts have said an autopsy could still reveal the cause of an individual’s death if the body is exhumed years after burial.

The pathologists said carrying out an autopsy after burial does not alter the cause of death of an individual if the forensic examination is properly done and analyzed.

They, however, said there are instances where it will be difficult for an autopsy to identify the cause of death after a corpse has been exhumed.

The senior medical professionals, who spoke exclusively to PUNCH Healthwise, revealed that embalmment could alter the result of an autopsy carried out on an exhumed corpse.

According to them, it is better to carry out an autopsy before burial when the body is still fresh, rather than when it has been buried and decomposing.

An autopsy, according to Mayo Clinic, is a postmortem procedure done by pathologists, in an attempt to determine the cause of death, trace the extent of known diseases and conditions, and confirm medical diagnoses.

On Thursday, September 21, the remains of the late singer, Ilerioluwa Aloba, popularly known as Mohbad, were exhumed by a combined team of the Nigeria Police Force and health officials.

Confirming the exhumation, the Lagos State Police Command stated,“Mohbad’s corpse has been exhumed today, and an autopsy will begin as soon as possible,” the Lagos State Police Command Public Relations Officer, Benjamin Hundeyin, confirmed the developments to our correspondent in an exclusive telephone interview on Thursday.

The late singer, who seemed to have assumed global fame posthumously, died on September 12, 2023, within alleged questionable circumstances.

 Speaking with our correspondent, Chief Executive Officer of Help Diagnostics and Checkup Services, Lagos, Professor Wale Ajala, told our correspondent that with proper forensic autopsy, the cause of death could be found after burial even if the person was poisoned.

“A body can be exhumed and you can still find the cause of death. There is no doubt about that. Even some that have spent years can be exhumed and you will still find the cause of death if you do a proper forensic autopsy.

“If the autopsy is done before burial, it is okay.  But if it is done after burial many causes of death can be known during a forensic autopsy.

“Even with tissue injury, the cause of death can still be found during autopsy. If somebody is poisoned, if the body is exhumed, you take some fractions of the tissue and analyze it critically; the cause of death can be found. The cause of death can still be found if the kidneys have not decayed.

“So, exhuming a body does not mean that the cause of death will not be found.

“But if the body was embalmed before burial, it can mask the cause of death during autopsy. Embalmment may distort your findings.”

Corroborating the statement of his colleague, A professor of Anatomic Pathology, Faculty of Medicine, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Anambra State, Daniel Anyiam, said, “There are some causes of death you could see post-mortem after the body had been buried. Even if you exhume it, you will see it. It will be there looking at you.

“But there are some causes of death, for example, if the heart is larger than normal, it is possible that by the time you exhume it, you may not be able to detect the cause of death. It will be difficult to measure that heart again.

 “But you could do that if it was done before burial. However, there are some causes of death you can always get even after burial.

“Also, there are some causes of death that will not be detected after burial and when it is so, we say the cause of death is unidentifiable.”

Anyiam, a consultant anatomic pathologist at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital, Nnewi, however, maintained that carrying out an autopsy on a corpse after exhumation may not reveal the natural cause of death and advised that it should be done before burial.

The forensic expert further stated that there are causes of death that are identifiable if an autopsy is carried out after exhumation such as gunshot, accident and fractures.

According to him, the cause of death can either be natural or unnatural.

“The result of the investigation will depend on what was the cause of death because there are different causes of death. If the cause of death was natural, likely, you will not get much if the body has been buried and exhumed.

 “But suppose it was a gunshot, if carry out an autopsy, you will still see the bullet with the dead body.

“Suppose he had an accident and had multiple fractures, or was beaten and had a broken skull and so on, we are going to see that one”, he said.

The pathologist noted that an autopsy is very expensive and out of the reach of the poor, adding that it is even more expensive to carry out an autopsy after burial than before burial.

Researchers say a forensic autopsy is an examination conducted postmortem to address a criminal matter, adding that a forensic autopsy is also called a medicolegal autopsy.

The performance of a forensic autopsy, they noted, follows instructions from the concerned legal authority responsible for the medicolegal investigation of sudden, unexpected, suspicious, mysterious, obscure, unexplained, or litigious deaths, criminal deaths, industrial deaths, and deaths associated with medical or surgical treatment, where medical negligence is alleged.

 In a 2022 article published in the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the authors said the performance of a forensic autopsy forms a part of the medicolegal death investigation system.

 “The aims and objectives of a forensic autopsy differ from one case to another and can be specific for a particular case. Nevertheless, in general, the following are the objectives of conducting a forensic autopsy:  to establish the identity of the dead, to determine the cause of death, to assist in confirming or refuting the alleged manner of death, wherever possible, to estimate the time since death (postmortem interval).

“The cause of death occurs either as an injury in cases of violent deaths or by disease in cases of natural deaths. The cause of death can be either natural or unnatural.

“However, it is noteworthy that the final verdict regarding the manner of death is decided by the court of law in most jurisdictions worldwide since opinion on the manner of death is based not just on medical evidence but more so on other circumstantial pieces of evidence. Medical evidence is only one piece of the puzzle”, the authors said.

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