If your loved one is murdered, do the police really make you identify the body?
June 26, 2009 10:43 AM   Subscribe

After a murder or sudden death, do the deceased's family members really have to go down to the morgue to "identify the body" or is this just a dramatic construct of movies and television?

This seems like a really traumatic thing to put family members through after a sudden death. Couldn't the police confirm identity in other ways? Yet every episode of Law & Order seems to suggest otherwise.

If this really does happen, is the typical TV depiction correct, ie. they go down to the morgue, lift up a sheet, someone goes "that's her" and then they put down the sheet and walk out of the room? What purpose does this serve?

I guess there must be some truth to it, but wondering about the when, where, why, what, how, etc.
posted by hamsterdam to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If there is no form of ID, yes. Some co workers of mine had to identify another co worker who died while out on a lunch time jog, and never returned.

I am sure there are hard and fast rules, but I don't know them and this is the only anecdote I have.
posted by Danf at 10:53 AM on June 26, 2009

in the Washington Post, there was an article about families having to go identify some of the victims of the recent metro crash.
posted by sio42 at 11:04 AM on June 26, 2009

In Alabama, clergy can identify parishioners if doing so would cause the family undue distress. A young lady in the first parish I worked in was riding her bicycle when she swerved into the path of an 18 wheeler. The Pastoral Care minister said it was "among" (!) the worst things he'd ever seen.
posted by jefficator at 11:10 AM on June 26, 2009

Couldn't the police confirm identity in other ways?
What other ways would you suggest? They can do it through dental records if the body isn't recognizable, but it's expensive and time-consuming, and it's easier just to have someone who knows the person do it visually.

Anyway, I know someone whose aunt died at home alone in New York, and my acquaintance had to go identify the body. So yeah, it does happen.
posted by craichead at 11:14 AM on June 26, 2009

My friend died in a car crash, and yes, his parents had to go and identify his body. Fun times. Then, when we had to testify at the criminal trial of the guy who killed him (he was running from the cops, carrying drugs and a gun when he hit my friend's car), we had to identify our friend from a morgue photo. very very fun times.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:20 AM on June 26, 2009

ID'ing a body doesn't always work though.

Your post reminded me of this story. Identifying a body can be a dramatic element in a plot, but it can also be a traumatic enough experience, that loved ones mis-identify the body.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 11:28 AM on June 26, 2009

Even if there is ID on the deceased, it appears that standard procedure is to have someone formally identify the body. Most likely it is to confirm that the deceased is the same person whose ID he or she had on his person at the time of death. (There is always the chance that the deceased was carrying a false ID.)
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:40 AM on June 26, 2009

My mom had to go identify my uncle's body after he was murdered. She had to identify his full body, not just his face, and describe any birthmarks.
posted by cobain_angel at 11:41 AM on June 26, 2009

They can also do genetic tests, but that too is expensive.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:42 AM on June 26, 2009

I had to identify my mother's body at the funeral home, even though she died in a hospital.
posted by Kafkaesque at 12:10 PM on June 26, 2009

A friend sent a family friend over to identify the body when her father died in a skiing accident.
posted by teragram at 12:21 PM on June 26, 2009

This is pretty standard, and the TV depiction isn't all that far off. Ideally, they have someone do an ID before the body hits the morgue, but it happens. About the only time I can think of where the relevant authorities generally don't ask for an ID is when someone dies in a hospital having been identified upon admission, but as Kafkaesque points out, sometimes this is done even under those circumstances.
posted by valkyryn at 12:42 PM on June 26, 2009

My grandmother was murdered by my grandfather when I was 12, and my father and mother had to go identify her body even though she was unrecognizable. In this situation it was known that she was murdered by her husband (previous history of mental issues), but someone still has to come in and ID. Someone has to identify the body, regardless of circumstance. While Law & Order isn't true in a lot of respects, the lifting of the sheet and collapsing to the floor is very much a real ordeal for some people.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 12:43 PM on June 26, 2009

Like Kafkaesque, I had to identify my grandmother's (non-murdered) body at the funeral home even though she died in a hospital as well.
posted by VioletU at 1:00 PM on June 26, 2009

I would love a non-circumstantial answer from someone on this one.

I've always wondered about this myself.

This article suggests that it may not be necessary unless certain conditions are met, but it's still not a definitive answer:

Unless there is a legal requirement for identification or a security restriction, let survivors make the choice as to whether or not they want to view their loved one’s remains. Some family members may be anxious or intimidated about making or declining such a request or expressing their wishes, so ask them directly. In cases where it is forensically essential to involve the family in the identification process, be sure to provide the appropriate support.
posted by foooooogasm at 1:24 PM on June 26, 2009

When people say you "have to," is it a law? If a family member dies, and I refuse to go to the morgue, can they arrest me?
posted by grumblebee at 1:31 PM on June 26, 2009

I wonder if answering falsely in this circumstance falls under the pain and penalties of perjury. Can someone simply drop off the radar by having an acquaintance mis-identify a drifter? Or a relative prolong a missing persons case by refusing to accept a death?
posted by Jeff Howard at 1:37 PM on June 26, 2009

This is the article that sio42 mentioned.
posted by jgirl at 1:38 PM on June 26, 2009

Well, at one point my boss's husband was killed in a horrific car accident (rear-ended by a garbage truck, jaws of life, DOA, etc.) and she couldn't face identifying him, so her boss did it.

I would love a non-circumstantial answer from someone on this one.

From Death Scene Investigation
Visual Identification
This nonscientific method is the easiest and most common way of performing an identification (ID). This can also be done by taking a digital or Polaroid picture of the body. The DSI [death scene investigator] can help confirm the identification by looking at a picture or picture ID of the deceased. The driver's license is very good for this because height, weight, and eye color are noted. If the deceased is in surroundings (e.g. home, car, office) that are familiar and appropriate and the face is in good condition, the investigator can become comfortable with this method of ID. However, there may be pitfalls to this method.

Laypersons can become upset or uncomfortable at the sight of the body and might not look at the face. They might agree too quickly with the ID to simply get away from the body. People do not appear the same in death as compared to life. Witnesses can be deceptive, or claim to know the person. In cases of moderate decomposition or extensive facial injuries, it may not be possible to make a good visual ID, and thus other methods must be used.

posted by dhartung at 1:39 PM on June 26, 2009

Thanks guys for the responses.

Does anyone know of any laws or procedural guidelines regarding visual identification of bodies? When is a visual ID required vs. a photo comparison? Per dhartung's post above, if "laypersons" can be unreliable, why use this method at all?
posted by hamsterdam at 2:41 PM on June 26, 2009

My mother died in her own home.
The funeral home took the body after the formalities but we still had to identify her from a photograph when we went to the funeral home.
They said that it was to prevent any mix ups.
posted by Drasher at 2:55 PM on June 26, 2009

"(There is always the chance that the deceased was carrying a false ID.)"

My grandfather had to go identify (and correct the error) of my na'er-do-well uncle after he died with a false identity. (Skipped out of hospital after a quad-bypass(!!) to avoid getting hassled for the bill...)
posted by gjc at 4:02 PM on June 26, 2009

hamsterdam writes "if 'laypersons' can be unreliable, why use this method at all?"

Just guessing but it can provide a procedural back stop. From some of the stories my mother has told me (she's a long term care worker) I'd bet it is not totally unheard of for people with relatives in a nursing home to come identify a body and have it turn out not to be their relative.
posted by Mitheral at 5:14 PM on June 26, 2009

My mother died of cancer in her own home with my father and sister present. The funeral home required (I don't know if it was law, but was funeral home policy) that next of kin go and identify the body 3 days later before she was to be cremated.
posted by Bueller at 5:52 PM on June 26, 2009

When my father died, neither visual id nor dental records could be used due to the manner of death. We were facing having to delay the funeral since the medical examiner wouldn't release the body to the funeral home without a positive identification, even though there wasn't any practical doubt. One of his doctors was able to supply X-rays of his wrist bones which had distinctive spurs of some kind and sufficed. DNA would have been the final resort.
posted by Pryde at 9:05 AM on June 27, 2009

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