post mortem




In this lesson, students will discover that death investigations in the United States are inconsistent, unregulated, and in many cases conducted by people who are not trained in forensic pathology. Students will study and discuss the importance of competent death investigations and outline steps that lawmakers could take to improve the system. For primary source documents and other background materials about death investigation, please see Related Resources.


Subject Area:

Social Studies, Government, Civics, Ethics and Law


Grade Level:

Grades 9-12 (Note: The video chapter used in this lesson contains imagery that some may find disturbing. Please preview before classroom use.)



The student will:

  • Define the terms “post mortem,” “autopsy,” “coroner,” “medical examiner” and “forensic pathologist.”
  • Analyze a map that shows state by state how death investigations are conducted, whether by medical examiners or coroners.
  • Discuss the value of competent death investigations.
  • Examine details related to autopsies, the qualifications of coroners, the cost of reforming systems for death investigation, the role of forensic pathologists, and the lack of national standards or oversight of death investigations.
  • Write persuasive letters to lawmakers that outline steps that should be taken to ensure competent death investigations.


Estimated Time Needed:

One 50-minute class period.

For classrooms able to spend more time or that need additional background, please see the teaching strategies outlined in the Lesson Extensions.


Materials Needed:



  • Using Nielsen Television data or another resource, display a list of top TV shows. Point out which are dramas related to crime scene investigation and ask students if they watch these types of programs. If so, what do they find interesting about them?
  • Write the words “post mortem,” “autopsy,” “coroner,” “medical examiner” and “forensic pathologist” on the board. Ask students to share what they already know about the meaning of each term.
  • Explain that the class will be watching a film segment that will teach them more about the list of terms and the death investigation process.
  • Watch the video chapter “This Is Not Your CSI“ (length: 13:03). Focus student viewing by asking them to add to their definitions of the vocabulary words based on the film’s content.
  • After watching the clip, ask students to revisit how the terms are defined, drawing from the following information as needed:
    • Post mortem: “After death,” also used to refer to an autopsy.
    • Autopsy: An external and internal examination of the entire body to determine the cause of death.
    • Coroner: An elected official responsible for death investigations. This person typically does not have any medical training.
    • Forensic pathologist: A specially trained physician working in a public office or private setting to examine the bodies of people who have died suddenly, unexpectedly or violently, as well as other specific classes of death as defined by state laws. The forensic pathologist typically determines the cause and manner of death at the request of a coroner or medical examiner, or on a fee-for-service basis.
    • Medical examiner: A forensic pathologist serving as a public officer who investigates deaths occurring under unusual or suspicious circumstances. He or she may perform autopsies or oversee others who conduct these exams.
  • Using the “Death in America” map, show students the system used in their state for death investigations. Discuss:
    • In what ways do coroners and medical examiners differ?
    • Which system seems to be most common in the United States?
    • How could systematic variations from state to state be problematic in the death investigation process? (Some examples of state variations are provided in the article “How Qualified Is Your Coroner?”)
    • Why is competent death investigation important? What are the benefits to families and communities? What are the risks of incompetent death investigations?
  • Give each student a handout and divide the class into five groups. Have each group read a specific article from Things to Know Before You Go and answer the questions for that article on the handout.
  • Ask a member of each group to share with the class what the group learned from their article. All students should complete their handouts with information provided during the group presentations.
  • Have students apply what they have learned in this lesson by writing a persuasive letter to their state or national lawmakers that outline steps that should be taken to ensure competent death investigations.



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