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What happens when remains are found?

We have seen it on the news, a forensic team is surrounding the remains of an unknown person to try and identify who this person is and how they died.   The lengthy forensic process is painstakingly carried out by the team, so that closure can be brought to the family.
When someone is found that has not been dead very long, fingerprints can help identify them, but when there is not enough tissue left to do that, forensic scientists use another way. First, they want to determine how long the remains have been there so they begin by asking themselves questions:
Is the body decomposed, skeletonized or mummified?  Are the remains above or below last year’s leaf fall.  Have weeds grown through the remains? Remains are then transported in a box or body bag for a post-mortem examination. Once they are at the lab, the remains are x-rayed for foreign objects.
Bust of unidentified remains

If the tissue is decomposed, then the skeleton is turned over to a forensic anthropologist who will study the remains further, by removing the tissue with boiled water or using a colony of dermestid beetles. The bones are allowed to dry and then are examined for signs of trauma.  Sex, age, height and race can be determined just by bones.  Sex by the pelvis (only if it is an adult) and race by the skull.  Previous fractures, signs of diseases, help narrow down the identity.  Hip replacements and breast implants yield identities because of the serial numbers.

DNA that can’t be extracted from the bones, can be extracted from the teeth.   A dentist will take x-rays to determine dental health and if the person smoked.  Investigators take the post-mortem report and check missing person reports.  If no match can be made, then the information from the post-mortem can be put on the government’s database, NamUs that allows the public to search for their missing loved ones by description.  If identification has not been made, then a facial reconstruction is done by an artist who creates a bust from clay or sculpture.  Using the skull, they can build a likeness of the person as they looked when they were alive.


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