How are corpses identified?

01 Corpse finds - unnatural deaths


When a body is found or when unnatural deaths become known, it is the task of the police to ensure that any police investigations that become necessary are carried out.

The corpse must:

  • salvaged
  • guarded and
  • be safely housed.

Until a doctor arrives, whose task it is to determine the death of the corpse at the place where the corpse was found, no changes may be made to the corpse found, provided that there are no overriding reasons for deviating from this rule.

A body of water is of course to be dragged onto the bank so that it cannot swim away.

Irrespective of this, if an unnatural death becomes known, the local public prosecutor's office is in accordance Section 159 StPO (Obligation to notify in the event of a corpse found and suspected unnatural death) to inform immediately that:

  • an unknown corpse was found or
  • unnatural death cannot be ruled out as the cause of death.

This briefing of the StA is Need about a criminal complaint, but about information. In the event that a public prosecutor cannot be reached, a judge in his function as emergency prosecutor is
Section 165 StPO (Judicial investigative acts in the event of imminent danger) to inform of the event.

02 Evidence of an unnatural death


The evidence to justify the assumption that a person died an unnatural death must be specific, or at least indicate a distant possibility that the death could have been caused by a crime.

Nevertheless, a corpse is not a preliminary investigation within the meaning of the Section 160 StPO(Duty to clarify the facts), because criminal proceedings cannot be carried out against a corpse.

[Unnatural causes of death

:] The following unnatural causes of death are possible:
  • accident
  • Suicide
  • Violent crime
  • externally induced death.

The determination of death can only be made by a doctor. Therefore, if a corpse is found, a doctor must be consulted immediately to determine the death. If emergency doctors are called to the location of a corpse, their task is only to determine the death and to document this in a provisional death certificate.

If emergency doctors determine during their examinations that an unnatural cause of death is possible, they must of course inform the police of their findings.

The subsequent investigation - to be arranged by the public prosecutor - is carried out by another doctor.

[Confiscation / seizure of the corpse

:] If it can be assumed that a corpse died an unnatural death, which is always to be assumed when an unknown corpse is found, the corpse - until it is released for burial by the public prosecutor's office - is subject to seizure or confiscation Section 94 StPO(Securing of evidence) taken into official custody.

Corpses that relatives do not voluntarily hand over to official custody must be confiscated.

03 inquest


According to Section 87 StPO A corpse that is in official custody is subjected to an inquest. As a rule, the investigation is ordered by the locally responsible public prosecutor's office.

On the occasion of an inquest, only the external condition of the corpse is assessed.

The primary goal of an inquest is to determine whether death has actually occurred. The so-called certain signs of death are used for this purpose:

  • Rigor mortis
  • Corpse stains or
  • Putrefaction.

Injuries that are “incompatible with life” are also to be regarded as certain signs of death.

These include:

  • Corpses burned beyond recognition
  • Corpses that have already rotted or
  • have been lying in the water for weeks
  • Corpse without head etc.

Doctors called in for an inquest always take part in an inquest as experts.

Secondly, an inquest is used to determine whether the corpse died a natural or an unnatural death.

The natural causes of death are "internal" causes, ie illnesses, while all "external" reasons for a person's death (accident, suicide, murder or other criminal offenses) are to be regarded as unnatural causes of death.

If the cause of death cannot be clearly clarified, it is possible to decide on an "unexplained cause of death".

Establishing the cause of death is important so that in the event of a crime, appropriate investigations can be initiated by the public prosecutor.

The determination of death by an investigation is the prerequisite for a death certificate to be issued. Relatives need it in order to be able to bury the corpse.

The examination of the corpse is carried out on the unclothed corpse in good light.

The examination of the natural body orifices is also part of the investigation.

The skull of the corpse is also examined for fractures.

04 Opening of the dead body


If the cause of death is not clarified to the satisfaction of the physician during an investigation, the corpse can be opened (autopsy). An autopsy must always be carried out if there is suspicion that the death was caused by external violence.

Unlike an inquest, which can be carried out by a doctor, a corpse is opened by twoDoctors performed (Section 87 (2) sentence 1 of the Code of Criminal Procedure).

It is necessary for a corpse opening (autopsy) none judicial order.

A judicial order is only required if an already buried corpse has to be dug up to open the corpse (Section 87 (4) of the Code of Criminal Procedure).

Regarding the extent of openings in bodies Section 89 StPO (Extent of opening of the corpse) relevant.

When finding children's corpses is Section 90 StPO (Children's corpses) to be observed.

If there are indications of poisoning as the cause of death, intervene Section 91 of the Code of Criminal Procedure(Poisoning).

More detailed information on the examination of corpses and the opening of corpses are contained in the guidelines for criminal proceedings and administrative fines (RiStBV).

05 Regulations of the RiStBV on the occasion of corpses found


Police officers should be familiar with the regulations contained in the RiStBV with regard to conducting examinations and opening bodies.

33 RiStBV

(1) If there are indications that someone died of an unnatural death or if the body of an unknown person is found, the public prosecutor shall examine whether an investigation or opening of the body is necessary. An inquest will regularly be necessary if a crime cannot be ruled out from the outset as the cause of death. If possible, the investigation should be carried out at the crime scene or at the location where the corpse was found.

(2) If a criminal offense cannot be ruled out as the cause of death even during the examination of the corpse, or if it is to be expected that the findings will later be questioned, the public prosecutor will in principle initiate the opening of the corpses. This applies in particular to the death of persons who have been in custody or otherwise in official custody.

(3) As a rule, the public prosecutor carries out the investigation. The judge should only request that the judge carry out the examination and attend the opening of the corpse if this is necessary for special reasons, for example to enable the transcript to be read out in accordance with Section 249 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

(4) The public prosecutor will only take part in the opening of the corpse if, at his due discretion, he considers this to be necessary in the context of a comprehensive investigation. The public prosecutor's participation will usually come into consideration in capital matters, after fatal accidents in order to reconstruct the accident, in deaths due to the use of firearms on duty, in deaths in the execution of custodial measures or in proceedings that involve medical malpractice.

35 RiStBV
Removal of body parts

(1) The public prosecutor must ensure that blood and urine samples, stomach contents or body parts are taken when the corpse is opened, if it is possible that the matter can be further clarified through a thorough investigation. Sometimes, e.g. B. in the case of alleged death from poisoning, it is advisable to consult a special expert who will designate these components.

(2) If body parts are sent for further assessment, a copy of the record of the opening of the corpse must be enclosed. The investigation files are generally not to be sent.


Doctors (experts) called in for examinations and for opening bodies are obliged to document their findings in writing.

06 Identification of the dead


The law stipulates that unknown dead are to be identified. This should be done before the corpse is opened, if possible. A dead person can be identified

  • by inspection of the corpse by relatives
    or through
  • the inspection of the corpse by people who knew the dead person, see Section 88 StPO(Identification of the dead).

If it is not possible to identify a corpse by relatives or other persons, an identification service measure on the basis of
Section 81b StPO (Identification service treatment) into consideration. Ed measures can be effective if usable from the corpse

  • Photos made resp.
  • Fingerprints can be secured.

If this is no longer the case, for example because the corpse has been burned beyond recognition, mutilated or decayed, then the identity of the corpse can only be reliably determined on the basis of a molecular genetic examination, if a necessary reference sample is available , or else the "genetic fingerprint" of the corpse (which is not unlikely in the case of missing items) is already held in the INPOL system (missing items).

The extraction of molecular genetic material to establish the identity of cadavers is in such cases on the basis of Section 81e StPO (Molecular genetic examination) possible.

Whether this authorization is to be used, however, can be questioned, because a corpse is neither an accused within the meaning of § 81a StPO (physical examination of the accused; blood samples) nor an unsuspicious (other) person within the meaning of § 81c StPO (Investigation of other people). Here the legal opinion is represented that (even with a corpse) those powers should be applied which offer the highest possible legal protection.

So also the regulation of Section 88 StPO(Identification of the dead) in which onSection 81f StPO (Procedure in molecular genetic testing) is referred to, thereby establishing a connection toSection 81c StPO (Examination of other people) results.


] The rules of the StPO must be observed when unnatural deaths become known. It should be noted that these federal regulations take precedence over state powers (federal law violates state law). For the arrangement of molecular genetic examinations, which may be necessary on the occasion of corpse finds, there is consequently no room for § 14a PolG NRW. So far has§ 14a PolG NRW (Molecular genetic examinations to establish identity) only has a declaratory effect.

This also applies to the statements in the VVPolG NRW on § 14a.

There it says: