Types of Postmortem Artifacts

‘Postmortem artifacts are any type of change or new feature produced in the body after death that can often create confusion on its nature and causation and results in misinterpretation of medicolegally significant antemortem findings or is itself wrongly considered as a significant antemortem finding.

These are physiologically unrelated to the natural state of the body or tissue, or the disease process, to which the body was subjected before death. Forensic experts make use of their expertise to identify such artifacts to avoid any sort of misinterpretation. Misinterpretations can derail the investigation. Therefore it is important to make correct interpretations to prevent erroneous diagnoses.

Artifacts can happen during postmortem examination, due to decomposition, improper handling of the body, accidental situations, environmental changes, due to surgical interventions, during embalming, animal, bird or insect activity.

The rightful examination is required to convince the relatives, police, lawyers because the external findings caused by postmortem artifacts can be mistaken as an injury and doubt the death to be a homicide. A correct examination can bring the true facts under light and prove the nature of the death.

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Postmortem Artifacts of Decomposition

  • Bloating of the body after death can be a misleading picture of obesity.
  • Bloody decomposition fluid that oozes out from the mouth and nostrils can be misinterpreted as antemortem bleeding due to trauma. And fluid in the chest can be misinterpreted as pleural effusion/hemothorax. Air in the right heart can be mistaken for air embolism.
  • If any tight garment or cloth was worn around the neck during the time of death can be misleading to be a ligature mark. And if blood accumulated in the tissues of the neck in drowning it may simulate antemortem hemorrhage due to strangulation.
  • Postmortem dilations and flaccidity of the vagina and anus may appear to be due to sexual assault.
  • Fissures or splits formed in the skin due to decomposition may simulate lacerated or incised wounds.
  • Internal hypostasis with hemolysis in meninges resembles hemorrhages.
  • Focal autolysis in the pancreas can be interpreted wrongly as pancreatitis and if during decomposition the abdomen bursts, then it may be mistaken for abdominal trauma.
  • Ethyl alcohol may be produced in the decomposed body which has been attributed to bacterial action. The presence of such alcohol may be mistaken for alcohol intoxication.
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Third Part Artifacts

  • When animals and insects and rodents feed on the dead and decomposing body, they leave marks that might resemble injuries. Bodies recovered from water may show gnawing injuries from aquatic animals.
  • Criminals who cut the body parts and dispose them may be simulated to be due to mutilation. And sometimes criminals may inflict injuries after death to mislead the investigation.
  • The trocar that is injected during embalming produces a wound that can be misleading as an injury before death. Embalming makes it difficult to estimate time since death or collect any evidence like blood or samples for toxicological analysis.
  • Certain artifacts are induced by autopsy surgeons when they try to open the skull, produce incisions, fracturing the hyoid bone and thyroid cartilage while separating the neck sutures forcefully.
  • The use of defibrillators may leave an impression over the chest that might look like a contusion.  
  • Endotracheal intubation positive pressure ventilation or artificial respiration may cause surgical emphysema and pneumothorax.
  • Rigor in the pylorus of the stomach causes it to be unduly firm and contracted.
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Other Artifacts

  • Heat hematomas may simulate extradural hematoma.
  • The subcutaneous fat becomes hard and ruptures in cases of a burn. This rupture may simulate an incised or lacerated wound.
  • Postmortem lividity might appear to be pinkish instead of purplish or reddish-blue when the body is kept in the refrigerator or exposed to a cold environment.
  • Rigor mortis may be broken by attendants while shifting the body. Thus giving the wrong assessment about the time since death.
  • Accidental injury or fracture to the body by the tools used to dig during exhumation.
  • Tough handling of the body can result in injury, fracture, dislocation which may resemble antemortem injury.

Conclusion

If postmortem artifacts are ignored or misinterpreted then it can lead to concluding the wrong manner and cause of death. Because of the misleading findings, it can put a halt in the investigation of a criminal investigation or unnecessary spending of time and effort. It can undue suspicion of criminal interference. Most importantly it might result in the miscarriage of justice. 

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