How Do CSI's Identify A Corpse?

In most situations where a corpse is discovered someone will know who that person is and will be able to identify them. This is not always the case. When you die, your body will start to decompose. Your surroundings will directly affect the speed of this process. For instance, if it is cold the rate of decomposition will slow, and in the heat speed up. The corpse may not be recognisable depending on these factors and how quickly it has been discovered. If a body is left undiscovered for years, all that will be left is a pile of bones. No one can identify these just by looking at them. So how do CSI’s identify a corpse? I’ll be honest, when I started this job I had no idea that I would be involved in some of these processes. And it is probably just as well as they are unpleasant let me tell you!

how do CSI's identify a corpse

Visual Identification

This is by far the easiest way to identify a corpse if decomposition hasn’t set in. If we are able to identify the deceased visually by a friend or relative this is the easiest way to do it. And almost always the least grim! Not quite so if the body has started to go off, but if they are suitable for viewing they will be. The clothing they are wearing could also be really unique and could help identify them.

There is a downside; there's not much you can do about the smell for the poor person who will be making the ID. Even lilies cant cover up the smell of a decomposing body!

* Fun Fact*

Our Medical Examiners (ME) have a special spray for the really bad smelly ones! It’s ever so slightly grease based so if it gets on the floor it then turns the mortuary in to an ice rink! That is not a place you want to be falling over!

Tattoo Identification

Body art is a great way of identifying a corpse. They are so unique to a person they are invaluable in the ID process. Family & friends could have photographs of the person showing the tattoos we could use to compare to our deceased.

So How Does A CSI Help Identify A Corpse With Tattoos?

Close up photographs are always taken at autopsy’s of the tattoos in case of identification issues. A couple of examples are;

When a corpse is recovered from water, be it sea or river, the skin is sometimes sloughing off. This is grim! I cant dress this up nicely. The skin from your hands and feet will slide off just like gloves or socks (called de-gloving). Fingerprints are not able to be taken as the inner layers of skin have a slightly different pattern to the outer layers. But luckily tattoos penetrate many layers of skin so are still visible! Snap, compare, done!

I have also seen a body which was preserved in a kind of air dried way. The face was not recognisable but after wiping the dried skin on the arm with an alcohol wipe a tattoo sprung out! So clever!

Fingerprint Identification Of A Corpse!

One of the most well known techniques used by CSI's. If you don't recognise the face of the corpse for whatever reason and their hands are in relatively good order this is easy to do. With some black ink and sticky strips you can individually print the fingers and get them examined. They can be compared to prints we have on file if they have ever been in the system. If they haven’t, then we can find an item from their home to get a print from and compare that way! Simple!

This is not always a pleasant job though. In fact it’s never pleasant for me! One of the least favourite things I do! Read '9 Exhibits I Hate To Pick Up' to find out what else grosses me out!

How does a CSI Identify a corpse by fingerprinting?

Fingerprinting takes place at the end of an autopsy so there is blood everywhere already! You then have to clean the hand or your print wont be clear. There could be maggots, blood, slime, you name it, it has to come off. Then you have to get the fingers out of rigor mortis and pull them out straight. Most people stick their own nail in the corpse’ nail to achieve this but a) that is just disgusting and b) depending on the level of decomposition the nail could just come off! That would make me gag and we don't want that! Not helpful at all!

Psoas Muscle/DNA Identification

This is a muscle deep in your lumbar region and is takes longer to degrade than other areas of your body. Therefore it is really helpful because it means we can recover DNA from corpses which have been dead little while. The deceased may be on our database but if not and we have a good idea who it may be we have a little trick. We go to their home address and find an item which is heavily used by them such as a toothbrush and that will give us a profile to compare our deceased’s profile to. 

So How Does A CSI Help Identify A Corpse Using Psoas Muscle?

Well we don’t clearly. The muscle is removed during the autopsy by the 'ME' who puts it in a nice pot with formaline and then we just send it off and get all the glory from the ident!

Forensic Odontology

Another very well know way of identifying a corpse is through dental records. This obviously assumes that the deceased has ever visited a dentist, and we know roughly which dentist to get the records from! Or if they even have any teeth!!! Even if only a few are present a match can still be obtained from the remaining tooth/teeth.

This is not a situation that a CSI will have involvement in, its clearly left to the experts!


When all that remains is a pile of bones, an anthropologist will attend to save the day. It’s amazing what they can tell from a skeleton, such as if the deceased had bad posture or a disease. After reconstruction it is possible if larger bones are present that a DNA profile can be obtained from inside the bones where the bone marrow once was! Simply incredible!

So to put it simply, if a body is found and it is unrecognisable facially then CSI’s are able to help identify them in many many ways. The wonders of science!

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