Frequently Asked Questions

 


Who is admitted to a mortuary?

Not everyone who dies in Victoria is admitted to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine.

Only those people whose death is reported to the coroner are brought to mortuaries like ours. These deaths include unexpected, sudden or traumatic deaths including those who die in custody or in association with a medical procedure. Each year between 3000 and 4000 people are admitted to the mortuary.

All deceased people undergo a preliminary examination by a forensic pathologist who provides the coroner with information which allows them to decide whether an autopsy is necessary. The majority of forensic autopsies are conducted on people who have died from unexplained natural disease, suicides, accidents, or where the circumstances of the death are unknown.

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What is forensic pathology?

Forensic pathologists assist coroners, police and courts to resolve critical medical issues, including causes of death and how injuries might have occurred. In other places around the world forensic pathologists might be referred to as ‘Medical Examiners’ or ‘Medical Coroners’. (NB. In Australia Coroners are Legal Judicial Officers not Pathologists.)

Forensic pathologists focus on the examination of deceased people, to determine how the death occurred and what the cause of death might mean for the health and wellbeing of the family. In this work we are assisted by a range of other forensic experts including mortuary forensic scientists, forensic toxicologists, forensic nurses, radiologists, paediatric pathologists and neuropathologists who support us in particular cases.

Much of the work forensic pathologists do is looking for patterns and trends in death and injury to help detect crimes and identify potential fatal hazards in the community that can be prevented.

We provide this information to coroners, who as lawyers can evaluate the broader social and legal issues and make recommendations that are aimed at preventing similar deaths in the future.

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What is Forensic Science?

Our forensic scientific service provides forensic toxicology, molecular biology (DNA) and entomology expertise to investigators and the courts.

Forensic Toxicology analysts test for drugs and poisons and provide expert evidence to our courts on the effects of these substances.

In particular our toxicologists look at alcohol, drugs of abuse, and a large range of over-the-counter and prescription drugs in fatal and non-fatal incidents including homicides. We also undertake therapeutic drug monitoring in a range of industries to help maintain a safe workplace.

Our Molecular Biology laboratory provides DNA typing services for human identification, determination of parentage and other legal proceedings that require DNA analysis and advice.

Entomology is the analysis of insect life which can help to establish the time of death of an individual. This may be important in cases involving murder, suicide, accident, or suspected neglect of persons in care.

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What is Clinical Forensic Medicine?

Clinical Forensic Medicine (CFM) is a medical specialty which deals with the interaction of clinical medicine and law. Our doctors have training in a range of medical specialties including emergency medicine, general practice and sexual health.

The division of Clinical Forensic Medicine at the Institute provides a range of clinical services and medical advice particularly in the investigation of violent crimes against the person, but also in a range of other criminal offences, such as sexual assault and child abuse.

Our doctors also provide expert advice to court on the effects of alcohol and drugs in relation to driving related offences and where such substances may have impaired the mental state of alleged offenders.

Support and care of victims is an integral part of the medical services we provide. Our aim is to ensure that the health and well being of our patients is our highest priority.

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What is The Donor Tissue Bank of Victoria (DTBV)?

The Donor Tissue Bank of Victoria is Australia’s only tissue bank which screens donors, processes, stores, tests and distributes multiple types of tissue from the one facility. It is a public sector not-for-profit organisation.

Our tissue bank nurses offer relatives the opportunity to salvage something positive from the tragedy of the loss of someone they loved.

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What is The Centre For Human Identification?

The Centre for Human Identification (CHI) is a specialist group of pathologists, clinicians, radiologists, odontologists, (dentists) anthropologists and molecular biologists who work together in the identification of the living and the dead.

Our team use their expertise to identify possible offenders as well as unknown bodies and skeletal remains. This work is particularly important in responding to mass disasters and humanitarian investigations involving mass graves and possible human rights abuses.

In the past we have assisted with human identification in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Burma, East Timor, Sri Lanka, the Solomon Islands and Indonesia. In the Asia Pacific region we have played a major role in the response to the tsunami, the Bali bombing 2005, and closer to home, the Victorian bushfires of 2009.

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Can I do Training and Research?

The VIFM offers specialist training in a variety of medical and scientific fields predominantly through Monash University where we operate as the Department of Forensic Medicine. Our doctors and scientists undertake fundamental and applied research in health, analytical science and law designed to improve the safety and wellbeing of our community and to ensure that our courts are provided with credible expert evidence on which our justice system can rely.

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What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is a medical examination which involves dissection of the body using techniques similar to a surgical operation.

The aim of an autopsy is to discover the following information:

  • The identity of the deceased person
  • When they died
  • The nature and extent of any disease they currently suffer from, or have suffered in the past
  • The nature and extent of any injury they are suffering from or have suffered in the past
  • The cause of their death
  • The circumstances of their death and how they died
  • Evidence of natural diseases that could affect other members of the family or members of the community

Prior to conducting an autopsy, the forensic scientists in the mortuary conduct specialist medical imaging procedures which may include x-rays and CT scans of the body.

During the autopsy the major organs of the body are removed for examination by the pathologist, and specimens such as blood and tissues for scientific analysis are taken.

Specimens may be tested to determine the identity of the person, to detect infection or the presence of drugs or poisons.

Once the post-mortem examination of the body is complete, the forensic scientist involved repairs the incisions made during the autopsy, and prepares the body for release to the funeral director.

An autopsy should be considered a public health procedure. It can help detect infectious disease hazards, identify preventable trauma, inform treating medical practitioners about the effects of prior and recent medical treatment, and in forensic cases, can assist police and justice agencies in assembling the evidence required for criminal proceedings.

Given the value of the autopsy for public health and the administration of justice, it is essential that the results of an autopsy are recorded in very considerable detail.

This is usually done by the pathologists preparing an autopsy report which is a written description of the autopsy findings and includes the pathologist’s comments regarding the autopsy findings and the medical cause of death.

In forensic cases this medical cause of death is usually adopted by the coroner. However, a coroner can amend a pathologist’s cause of death on the basis of further evidence available to a coroner which may not have been available to the pathologist at the time of conducting the autopsy.

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Why do people have autopsies?

It is the coroner’s responsibility to make a finding that includes: the identity of the deceased, how death occurred and the cause of death. This information is vital for the community to ensure that hidden homicides are detected and preventable causes of death are recognised so as to make our community healthier and safer in the future.

In order to do this, coroners often ask for the assistance of the pathologist to determine whether an autopsy is necessary. Having discussed the matter with a pathologist and the familiy, if the Coroner believes that an autopsy is necessary they will direct that one be perfomed by a pathology specialist such as a forensic pathologist.

Deaths reportable to the coroner include those that are: unexpected, for example suicide; accident or injury; violent or unnatural, for example homicide; as a result of anaesthesia; ‘held in care’ prior to death, for example in custody or prison; where a doctor is unable to sign a death certificate or the identity of the deceased is unknown.

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How can you identify a deceased person?

Identification may be achieved by a number of methods:

  • visual identification by family or friends
  • the circumstances in which the death occurred (eg. location of the body)
  • fingerprints
  • dental records
  • Comparative DNA analysis
  • evidence of prior disease or medical treatment (surgery)

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What is DNA?

DNA is short for deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA makes up the genetic “blueprint” which contains all the information necessary to make a living being. DNA is found inside the nucleus of almost every cell in the human body.

DNA is wound into tight thread-like structures called chromosomes. Humans have 46 chromosomes in total, half of which are inherited from the mother (in the egg), and half from the father (in the sperm). Forty-four of these chromosomes are called autosomes and the other two are sex chromosomes, known as the X and Y chromosomes.

We have two copies of each of the genes contained on the autosomes, one copy is inherited from our mother and the other from our father.