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Ceanna Tolbert is a Forensic Autopsy Technician working at the King County Medical Examiner’s Office in Seattle, Washington. She’s originally from the Pacific Northwest but spent 10 years in New Orleans where she studied surgical technology, worked at an eye bank, and started a family. Upon returning to the Seattle area, Ceanna spends most of her time when she’s not at work, exploring the outdoors and bookstores. She can often be found showing her children beaches, forests, and how to track Bigfoot.


Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life Series

Careers in Death Care – Your Career Options
A Day in the Life of an Autopsy Technician

A Day in the Life of a Gravestone Conservator

A Day in the Life of a Death Doula

A Day in the Life of an Embalmer
A Day in the Life of a Forensic Artist
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Director
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Celebrant
A Day in the Life of a Green Cemetery Director
A Day in the Life of a Hospice Nurse
A Day in the Life of a Hospice Physician

A Day in the Life of a Pathologist


Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life of an Autopsy Technician

Tell us about yourself and what brought you to become an autopsy technician?

While living in New Orleans, I was working as a cornea recovery technician for an eye bank when I began to fuel a growing interest in death care. While I always respected the dead, I began to find myself wanting to know more about how and why people die. More than that, I noticed the stigma surrounding death. People didn’t want to discuss death and dying and I wanted to help change that. I wanted to become as comfortable and involved as I could to help break through that barrier.

 Being an autopsy technician has rewarded me with the ability to not only care for decedents, but also to help answer puzzling questions. 

As a cornea recovery technician, I spent many days in the coroner offices in the greater New Orleans area. I became familiar with their process and their role in the industry. The technicians blew my mind! I remember how comfortable and natural they were with the people they were working on. It was nothing short of normal for them to be elbows deep in someone and carry on a conversation about the last night’s football game, or even lunch. Their ease and respect towards the individual on their table was exactly what I aspired after. How beautiful it was to see the living care so much towards the dead.

Being an autopsy technician has rewarded me with the ability to not only care for decedents, but also to help answer puzzling questions. Every day I get to go to work excited for new challenges and situations ranging from untreated natural disease lurking in someone’s heart, to a missing hiker whose body has been completely skeletonized. It’s a dream come true.

What inspired you to become an autopsy technician?

I was inspired to become an autopsy technician by a love affair of medicine and death. My grandfather was a prestigious anesthesiologist, as was his father and from a young age I also felt the pull into something medical.

I became a surgical technologist which was wonderful in it’s own way, but instead of answering questions, it led to more within myself. I became instantly fascinated by the human body and all it was capable of, but the extreme lengths that the hospital went to to hide death seemed unsettling to me and had me wondering how, as a society, we reached that point. What was so wrong with death? It’s a natural event that happens to all living things, and I felt myself wanting to know more.

It blew me away to be so close to the scientific side of death. Seeing bodies in different stages of decomposition and how our bodies really are nothing more than natural material that continues to change and evolve even after life is something to be celebrated.

What is the biggest misconception about autopsy technicians?

There are plenty of misconceptions about autopsy technicians which can range from us being a little weird and strange to what exactly our role entails. I get asked a lot about if my job is just to weigh out organs or set up stations for an autopsy. We do so much more than what people think we do.

 We find interest in the macabre and have a desire to work tirelessly to uncover any secrets that the body leaves us. 

On an average day, a pathologist in my office has 2-3 cases each and has a lot to do in a short amount of time for each case so as an autopsy technician, when we get the go ahead to open a body and start a case, the pathologist is usually finishing up reviewing medical records or recording external findings on another case. This leaves the technician to be the first eyes on the inside of a body. We need to make note of any hemorrhages, broken bones, or anything that looks peculiar and needs to be noted by the pathologist. During an autopsy, we need to draw blood samples as well as measure fluids. We measure bile, gastric contents, and urine. If there’s any blood or fluid in either the chest cavity or the abdomen we need to measure that well. Once an autopsy is completed we place the visceral bag back in the chest cavity and suture the body back before washing it.

There are special circumstances and other tasks that we can do at the request of the pathologist that don’t happen in every case which includes taking x-rays, removing bullets, removing spines and ribs, and testing urine for drugs.

We’re there to do a job. We’re professional and hard working and extremely passionate. It’s not a glamorous job, but it’s incredibly rewarding. We find interest in the macabre and have a desire to work tirelessly to uncover any secrets that the body leaves us. That being said, we are definitely a little weird and strange too!

Run us through a typical day as an autopsy technician.

My typical day starts at 6am where we begin photographing and processing bodies for autopsy. The processing varies depending on the circumstances of the case. Homicides require different processing procedures than natural deaths. We also need to make note of any medical interventions and clothing.

When the bodies are all processed and we’ve all had our coffee, our staff meets together to review and discuss the cases of the day. The pathologists make a plan for who requires an autopsy and which doctor will be performing it. As a technician, we get the autopsy suite organized and ready for the doctors to come in. Our office has six stations for autopsies so when we organize the suite, we move the bodies to the station where their doctor will be working. We get everything set up and help the doctors with external exams by moving the body so they can make notes. The majority of our work is during the internal exam.

The internal exam is exactly what it sounds like. We make a Y incision on the decedent’s chest and abdomen and use rib cutters to remove the chest plate and sternum so we can have easy access to the internal organs. Then we begin removing the organs, all the while paying close attention to anything that might be amiss or would need closer inspection by the pathologist. Once we have everything removed from the cavity, we can open the head to remove the brain. This requires making a long incision that starts from behind one ear and moves over the crown of the head to finish behind the other ear. The incision like that allows us to be able to reflect the scalp so we can saw. Just like with the body cavity, we’re alert to any hemorrhages on the scalp or fractures on the skull. We use a very specific autopsy saw to cut open the skull which allows us to cut only through bone and prevents us from going too deep which would cause damage to the brain.

When the skull cap is removed fully, the pathologist will take a look at the brain to make note of any swelling or bleeding before we remove it. With the brain removed, we can then also remove the dura and look for any fractures along the base of the skull. We also need to remove the neck along with the hyoid bone and tongue for the pathologist. This is a very delicate and sometimes tricky removal as we need to be careful not to sever the carotid arteries, which funeral homes use to help embalm bodies.

 Hearing how people spent their final moments and then solving puzzles to discover what led their bodies to their final rest was exactly how I wanted to spend my day at work. 

An autopsy is typically performed to find a cause and manner of death but austopsies can also be completed to confirm the identity of an individual as well as to evaluate and track diseases.

What was one of the hardest days you encountered as an autopsy technician?

I don’t think there have been any days that have stood out as remarkably hard, but there have been very difficult moments within the days. Certain cases tug at my heartstrings more than others and some days the death piles on more than others. Suicides are challenging and young children are heartbreaking, but in those moments, I remember why I’m there the most. I’m there to help bring answers to families. I’m there to help gain knowledge and understanding that life is brief and it doesn’t have to make sense, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try.

What was one of the most memorable days you’ve had as an autopsy technician?

One of my most memorable days was probably my first day. I walked in feeling pretty comfortable with bodies and death in general, but I was completely unprepared for the feeling of belonging that washed over me. I felt like my last few years were leading to this exact moment. My staff was so respectful and compassionate and I found the job to be so interesting and fascinating.

The day was a jumble of sights and smells and it would have been so easy to become overwhelmed by the chaos of it all, but I wouldn’t have walked away for anything! I wanted nothing more than to be exactly where I was. Hearing how people spent their final moments and then solving puzzles to discover what led their bodies to their final rest was exactly how I wanted to spend my day at work.

How can someone interested in becoming an autopsy technician start the process?

The best way to start the process of becoming an autopsy tech is to become comfortable with death and the human body. Many offices offer internships to aspiring techs who are enrolled in college classes. The classes definitely don’t need to be medical, they can be prerequisite classes as long as you have a general interest in the medical field. You could be heading to med school or plan on being a funeral director, or even someone who wants to keep options open and is curious about what we do.

Internships at offices vary but at our office, interns are exposed to every aspect of the job that full time technicians are and usually last from 1-2 years. They’ll learn how to do a complete autopsy and walk away from the experience with the knowledge of how our office runs and operates. If you don’t qualify for an internship because you’re not in school but you’re still interested in becoming an autopsy technician, you can always keep an eye out for job postings and beef up your resume with your knowledge on anatomy and physiology.

What type of education or training do you need to become an autopsy technician?

It depends on the office but most places require a 2 year degree in a related field such as biology or 2-3 years of similar work experience. Most of the training will be completed on the job but you’ll need to come with a strong understanding of anatomy, physiology, and biology. Some states are beginning to offer classes on autopsy but that’s not a requirement. It would definitely help anyone starting out though!

Since most of the physical training and education will be on the job, it’s important to have the skills that can’t be learned as easily. Such as having strong problem solving and critical thinking skills. The day to day work of an autopsy technician can be pretty busy and you’d need to be organized and know how to multitask proficiently. The job can also be emotional at times so it’s important to understand how you handle stress and how you can decompress when the day is finished. We see a lot of sensitive cases and knowing how to cope with that is an attribute we look for in a candidate. That and having a very strong stomach!

What advice would you give to someone starting out as an autopsy technician, or interested in becoming an autopsy technician?

The job can be draining both on a physical front as well as an emotional front, so it’s important to have a good support system to lean on but at the end of the day, the job is so incredibly interesting and rewarding that you will see the science in even the most difficult of cases.

Being an autopsy technician will bring you daily challenges but you will discover your strength and love for them. Be patient with yourself and allow yourself to feel every emotion that comes along with the job. You will learn so much. Every new person who comes in will come with their own stories and will teach you more and more. There will never be a boring day! Oh, and laugh. Never forget to enjoy being alive!


Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life Series

Careers in Death Care – Your Career Options
A Day in the Life of an Autopsy Technician

A Day in the Life of a Gravestone Conservator

A Day in the Life of a Death Doula

A Day in the Life of an Embalmer
A Day in the Life of a Forensic Artist
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Director
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Celebrant
A Day in the Life of a Green Cemetery Director
A Day in the Life of a Hospice Nurse
A Day in the Life of a Hospice Physician

A Day in the Life of a Pathologist

2 Comments

  1. Ceanna Tolbert is my daughter, I couldn’t be more proud of her, she is an amazing autopsy tech, and I’ve never know someone who is more passionate about their job than she is! She just loves it! Her description is so spot on and very well written.
    Thank you for having her tell her story!

  2. Thank you for sharing Ceanna’s story. I have known her since she was a little girl and she has always been a wonderful passionate person. I love how she will explain what she does and makes you want to hear more instead of being turned off. Death is a part of our world and she helps make it seem easier to learn and talk about. She is an amazing woman and I am so proud of who she has become.

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