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Knocking on death's door - forensic medicine in Copenhagen

The Institute of Forensic Medicine investigates the causes of strange, bloodcurdling and sad deaths. Located at Rigshospitalet, the conclusion of the autopsies helps to inform further litigation and give closure to cases

Hidden far away from the entrance door to the national university hospital Rigshospitalet, is the Institute of Forensic Medicine. Investigating gruesome, horrific, and prolonged deaths, the Institute plays a role in determining the cause of murders and a host of other cases, such as people who have died from work-related illness, accident victims, drug addicts and alcoholics. Overall, the Institute conducts approximately 650 autopsies annually.

Guided through a labyrinth of laboratories, reporters took a look into the dark world of forensics. Their guide was the experienced coroner, Hans Petter Hougen.

The tiles are shining and the air is humid after this morning’s thorough clean-up. Photos by Lars Juul Hauschildt

Investigating sudden, unexpected deaths from crime scenes is just one side of his professional career. Hougen also used his expertise to identify tsunami victims in Thailand, autopsy civilians in Kosovo killed by Serbs and has taught and lectured on forensic medicine’s role in torture documentation all over the world.

“We have the same neutral and objective approach to all forensic investigations: the notorious psychopath or violent felon being treated just as professionally as a child who has been sexually molested by her stepfather.”

Photo of the department’s CT and a MR scanner. Expensive brain scans are often part of the initial examination of the bodies. Photos by Lars Juul Hauschildt

“I usually say to students that they must remember that at the other end, a lawyer with no sense of humour sits with a sharpened pencil. Our analysis must be absolutely sober,” he says.

Inside, it’s like something out of the American TV series CSI (Crime Scene Investigation): Stainless steel operating tables, crime scene corpses, and a man in a white lab coat.

61 years old, Hans Petter Hougen, knows a thing or two about the field after making a few thousand autopsies himself and supervising somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 others. His job as coroner is to investigate sudden, unexpected and violent deaths. In this context, he distinguishes between the cause of death and the method of death. The cause of death could include suffocation and methods include homicide, accidental death or suicide.

Chain mail gear allow a firm hold on the organs examined and prevent accidental cuts. Photos by Lars Juul Hauschildt

The Institute of Forensic Medicine is tucked away within Rigshospitalet, the national university hospital. The department is well hidden behind locked doors due to the highly sensitive personal investigations that take place here.

See the gallery below to see behind the closed doors of the Institute of Forensic Medicine. Photos by Lars Juul Hauschildt,

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