Hospitals are not performing as many autopsies as they used to. Many health institutions are wary of the procedures, which often reveal doctors' fatal mistakes. In most cases Medicare and private insurance do not reimburse autopsies, which means families have to pick up the tab. Compounding these issues are religious objections to opening a body after death.

Throughout medical history, however, autopsies have taught doctors and pathologists a great deal about how to improve their techniques. So some pathologists have explored whether medical imaging can make "virtual autopsies" a viable alternative to the traditional variety. Doctors can use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) to generate detailed images of a body's internal structures without ever laying fingers on a scalpel. The conclusions so far are mixed: virtual autopsies are unlikely to ever fully replace traditional ones, but they do offer range of unique advantages. Virtual autopsies, for example, clearly reveal the contours of embedded objects like bullets and shrapnel, leave delicate tissues undisturbed—obviating the risk of destroying evidence for the cause of death—and circumvent religious objections.

In the accompanying slide show, you can view a selection of stunning postmortem images that Anders Persson and his colleagues produced with CT, MRI and ultrasound at the Center for Medical Image Science and Visualization (CMIV) in Sweden. The images depict the human skeleton, digestive tract, circulatory system and brain as well as the front end of a wild boar.

» View the Virtual Autopsy Slide Show