Death is a natural part of life. Not every decedent requires an autopsy, but those who do are entrusted to the skilled and compassionate hands of an autopsy technician and a medical examiner or coroner.
If you’re thinking about pursuing a career in death care, it may be because you have a respectful attitude toward the dead and a desire to help families get the answers they seek about their loved ones’ passing. This career guide explains how to become an autopsy technician and what you can expect from the field.
The Difference Between an Autopsy Technician and Related Careers
An autopsy technician is a professional who assists the medical examiner or coroner in performing an autopsy, which is a medical exam performed on a decedent to determine the cause and manner of death. Autopsies aren’t required for every death; they are typically performed for the following reasons:
- If someone dies unexpectedly or in a suspicious manner
- If there is an outbreak of disease with an unknown origin and there is a public health concern
- If the family, doctor or other legally responsible person requests an autopsy to determine the cause of death
- If the decedent did not have a treating physician who knew the decedent’s health issues well enough to fill out the death certificate
Since autopsy technicians support the coroner or medical examiner, it is helpful to know the difference between these two professional titles. A coroner is someone who can perform autopsies but does not necessarily have medical training. A medical examiner, on the other hand, is always a physician, quite often a pathologist. The coroner position is filled by a publicly elected official, whereas a medical examiner is appointed to their position and is board-certified.
Whether an autopsy technician works for a coroner or a medical examiner depends largely on the jurisdiction. Jurisdictions that operate under the medical examiner system require medical examiners to perform all clinical autopsies, while those that operate under the coroner system allow coroners to perform autopsies. Some coroners will appoint medical examiners to perform autopsies within their jurisdiction, however they also have the opportunity to perform autopsies themselves for any given case.
What Does an Autopsy Technician Do?
Every day can bring new and interesting cases on which an autopsy technician can work. The processing requirements for a suspected homicide are different from those of suspected medical malpractice. In general, however, an autopsy technician’s typical tasks include the following:
- Cleaning, organizing and preparing autopsy suites
- Lifting, transferring and positioning bodies and beginning the task of processing them, including photography and collecting blood samples
- Opening the bodies by making a Y-shaped incision on the chest and using rib cutters to remove bones in order to access the internal organs
- Assisting the medical examiner or coroner during the autopsy, such as by removing organs, weighing the organs and collecting body fluids and tissue samples for analysis
- Performing a complete dissection of a section of the body to accurately determine cause of death
- Making a note of any suspicious or unusual findings that warrant closer investigation by the medical examiner
- Maintaining meticulous documentation throughout the autopsy process, including documenting the patient’s clinical history
- Taking fingerprints if necessary
- Performing diagnostic imaging if necessary, including x-rays
The autopsy technician will also complete the necessary paperwork for releasing the body to the funeral home.
The Path to Becoming an Autopsy Technician
You may wish to pursue a career in death care because you are passionate about respecting the rights of the deceased and treating their surviving family members with compassion. This can also be an ideal career if you are passionate about medicine but are not quite sure that you want to work directly with living patients.
If you are still in high school, you should make an appointment with your guidance counselor to discuss your career plans. It may be possible to adjust your course schedule to reflect your future ambitions by adding more health-related classes such as anatomy and physiology, for example. Science and math classes will also be helpful.
In addition, you could look for job shadowing and internship opportunities at local or state health departments, county morgues or hospitals while you’re still in high school. As you approach graduation, you should make plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as pre-med or forensic science. A graduate degree and professional certifications may not be strictly required but are recommended for enhancing your career qualifications and job opportunities.
Different jurisdictions have their own requirements for hiring death care personnel, so it’s always best to research the requirements for the jurisdiction in which you plan to work in order to ensure you can fulfill those criteria. Although requirements vary, they commonly include the following:
- Proof of academic credentials
- On-the-job experience
- Competency in English
- Proof of identity and the ability to work in the United States
- Submission of a DNA sample
- Fingerprinting and a criminal background check
- A valid driver’s license
In addition, as an aspiring autopsy technician, you should be aware that physical fitness is ideal. Autopsy technicians must often lift, transfer and position bodies during a typical workday, and some bodies can be quite heavy. Very heavy bodies can be moved with a cart or dolly.
How To Become an Autopsy Technician With a Forensic Science Degree
After high school, the first step in the process of becoming an autopsy technician is to earn a four-year degree from an accredited school. There is some flexibility regarding the type of degree that you can earn. For instance, some students might choose to earn a biology, chemistry, biochemistry or pre-med degree.
However, a forensic science degree is strongly recommended. This is because forensic science degrees are multidisciplinary by nature in that they cover all of the important areas of study that aspiring autopsy technicians need to know. For example, a typical forensic science degree program will cover the following topics:
- The procedures and techniques of crime scene documentation and evidence-based crime reconstruction
- Crime scene processing fundamentals, including evidence collection, maintaining the chain of custody, creating sketches and giving court testimony
- Human anatomy and physiology, including the functions of the skeletal, nervous and muscular systems
- Forensic toxicology and drug metabolism, including the use of chromatography and spectroscopy techniques
- Serology and forensic DNA analysis, including identification of the body
A forensic science degree also includes courses in biology, biochemistry, physics, genetics and mathematics.
Gain Work or Internship Experience
It can help to gain part-time work or internship experience while you are working toward your degree. Many employers of autopsy technicians prefer to hire individuals who have at least a little experience in the field. Consider talking to the student services department on your college campus to explore local opportunities.
A position at a forensic science laboratory or morgue is ideal. However, if this type of position is not available, you could also look for related positions at hospitals and emergency medical service providers.
Acquire a Professional Certification
For many people, the process of becoming an autopsy technician involves obtaining a professional certification. Licensure and certification aren’t generally required but obtaining a certification can improve your job prospects. It is important to note that those applying for certification are typically required to demonstrate a certain amount of professional work experience as well as their academic credentials. Some options you can choose from include:
- The American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI): This professional organization offers a Registry Certification, which is appropriate for professionals with limited work experience, and a Board Certification, which is appropriate for experienced professionals who already have a Registry Certification. If you want to acquire a Registry Certification, you’ll need to be currently employed at a medical examiner’s or coroner’s office. You’ll also need to have completed certain hands-on training tasks, such as body evaluation at the scene of death. You must also pass an examination that covers topics such as legal responsibilities, investigations and interactions with the family of decedents.1
- The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP): This organization offers a Pathologist’s Assistants certification. To be eligible for this certification, you must have a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited university or college. You must also have completed a pathologist’s assistant training program that is accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS). After this, you must successfully pass an exam to receive your certification.1 You can complete online certificate programs to prepare for these exams and licensures.
Please note that professional certifications of all types commonly require periodic renewal. After obtaining a certification, you should make a note of the expiration date and the requirements for renewal. It’s customary for the renewal requirements to involve the completion of continuing education credits.
Do Autopsy Technicians Need a Master’s Degree?
It’s not strictly necessary for an aspiring or current autopsy technician to earn a master’s degree. However, doing so can open the door to advanced, supervisory positions and may offer the potential for salary increases.
An ideal advanced degree for an autopsy technician is a master’s degree in forensic science, although some individuals may choose to study biology, chemistry or a related subject at the graduate level. A master’s degree typically takes about two years of full-time study and may require the completion of a master’s thesis (depending on the school and program), which is a long research paper.
Career Advancement Opportunities for Autopsy Technicians
After successfully practicing in the field for a period of time, experienced autopsy technicians can pursue advancement opportunities, such as becoming a coroner. These opportunities may require additional education and training.
Become a Coroner
Coroners aren’t always required to have medical training. Some states do require coroners to pass a licensing exam and/or a state-approved training program. Coroners need to be elected by the general public in order to work as a coroner.
Become a Medical Examiner
Another possibility is becoming a medical examiner. In order to become a medical examiner, you will need to successfully complete medical school. This involves a rigorous, full-time program of study that lasts approximately four years and requires both classroom instruction and hands-on clinical learning experiences (called rotations). If you wish to pursue this option, you should choose electives and clinical rotations in autopsy pathology.
Following medical school, you will need to earn a medical license. This requires successfully completing the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). The USMLE comprises three separate exams that you will begin taking during medical school and complete following a year of residency.
After medical school, residency is required. Future medical examiners should expect to spend three or more years in a pathology residency. You must then complete a one-year fellowship as a medical examiner before you will be able to practice independently as a medical examiner.
You can take your first step toward pursuing a career as an autopsy technician by applying to Grand Canyon University. Our private school is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science degree, which has a broad curriculum that includes chemistry, forensic reconstruction, anatomy and physiology, DNA analysis, toxicology and more. Click on “Request Info” at the top of your screen to explore the Forensic Science degree and our other STEM programs.
1 Retrieved from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Forensic Science Technicians in June 2022.
Approved by a Director for the College of Science, Engineering and Technology on Sept. 15, 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.