A crime drama trope. Sometimes a dead body will be so devastated (e.g. burned or decayed beyond recognition) that identifying the victim by their appearance is impossible. The investigators have no choice but to use the victim's dental records to find out their identity.
Dental indentification lets the audience know the death was gruesome without necessarily showing the body. It also adds another layer of complexity to the plot. Was the body really correctly identified? What if the records are missing?
Sometimes the Genre Savvy criminal knows to avert this trope by removing the victim's teeth.
Sometimes in fiction a character has his teeth surgically altered so he can fake his death. Such surgery is easily identifiable in Real Life, at least in modern times, and in most cases the best way to fake a death through dental ID would be to switch the records.
A common trope in police procedurals, medical mysteries, and forensic shows. Identifying bodies from dental records is Truth in Television, but it works a lot better in fiction than in real life. See the Notes.
Compare The Girl Who Fits This Slipper.
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Anime and Manga
In Fullmetal Alchemist, when Roy Mustang is led to believe that Maria Ross assassinated Maes Hughes, he cuts off her escape and incinerates her to the point that the corpse can only be identified in this fashion. Subverted in that Mustang knew she was innocent all along and faked her death by incinerating a literal meat puppet. The coroner who performed the identification was also complicit in Mustang's deception.
Subverted in Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Takano, who vanishes on the night of Watanagashi, has her burnt body identified thusly when they find it stuffed in a well. However, she's the Big Bad who faked the corpse after all.
In Loveless, Seimei's body is identified this way after it is mangled beyond recognition before the start of the story. In one of the biggest Mind Screw moments of the last decade, Seimei turns up alive and well later on and apparently faked his own death, and it's heavily implied they pulled this off by switching his records with the real victim who died in his place.
In Veritas, this is how Lightning Tiger's remains are identified after he's burnt to a crisp.
Case Closed: In the case of Mermaid Island, arranging for a surreptitious dental record swap is how the suspect faked her death and framed the very victim whose records she swapped with, but eventually both Conan and Heiji see through the deception.
Examined in The Dark Knight Returns, where Batman dives after a figure that he believes to be Two-Face, who had seemingly been rehabilitated but now plotted to destroy the Gotham Twin Towers, which he falls from thanks to his disloyal henchmen.
The impact is tremendous. Even bone is turned to powder. Not much of a corpse left. Mostly liquid. Problem is...there might not be any fingerprints. Even dental records would probably be useless.
A variant in Symbiosis, Delia Ketchum and her husband's bodies were so charred, they had to identify them by their DNA to tell which was which.
The Whole Nine Yards the main character has a Chekhov's Skill: his are a dentist, and can thus can fake deaths by altering the teeth and dental work of corpses to resemble those of living people. Averted in the sequel The Whole Ten Yards, as Lazlo Gogolak isn't fooled for a second.
Wild Things. Police find some teeth by the beach and use Suzie Toller's dental records to identify them as hers and confirm her death. Later it's revealed that she knocked out her own teeth to fake her death.
Earl Talbot Blake fakes his death in Ricochet by switching his dental records with another inmate, and killing said inmate after escaping from prison.
In Bushwhacked, Reinhart Bragden's alleged remains are identified by his dental records. His teeth had been pulled and planted at the scene of a fire in order to fake his death and frame the protagonist Max Grabelski for arson and murder.
A rather silly version of this pops up in Time Chasers. An alternate-timeline verson of Lisa is killed and her body left totally unrecognizable from a plane crash, meaning police have to use dental records to confirm her identity. The trouble is that A: There isn't really any "database" for finding dental records, so investigators need to have an idea of who their John/Jane Doe is before they can compare records, and B: Lisa is alive and well in the timeline this occurs in, so the cops had no reason to compare dental records against those of someone who isn't dead.
Several Lord Peter Wimsey stories invoke this trope, though the identification is usually subverted.
In the short story In the Teeth of the Evidence, the dentist who makes the initial identification is working from written records and is so disturbed by the state of the badly-burned body that he performs only a cursory examination. It's only after the coroner finds hyoscine in the remains that he re-examines the teeth and determines that the corpse's teeth had been altered so that they would match the dental records of the killer, an evil dentist who had hoped to fake his own death.
The Nine Tailors also featured a failed dental identification.
Dental identification is also a key plot point in Agatha Christie's novel One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.
In Rupert Holmes' novel Swing, a character is killed in a fiery car accident and identified via dental records. It later turns out that the character instead switched dental records with the woman she killed in order to appear to have died.
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey discusses this but eventually averts it. The protagonist is impersonating a long-lost heir; it turns out that he doesn't have to deal with matching the heir's dental history, as the dentist who could have recognized him died along with the heir's parents, and his records were lost in a fire.
In the Nancy Drew Files book "Till Death Do Us Part'' a woman plots to kill Nancy's boyfriend Ned Nickerson and pass him off as her husband so she can collect the husband's inheritance. Stealing Ned's dental records was part of her fiendish scheme.
Gorky Park. Three bodies are found in Gorky Park, Moscow — shot and with their faces cut off. Each was also shot in the face, not as a coup-de-grace but to destroy their teeth. However a clue survives in that one of the characters had gutta-percha in his dentalwork (anyone living in the Soviet Union would have stainless steel dentistry) revealing that he's a foreigner.
The Brotherhood of the Rose by David Morrell. One of the protagonists — on the run from the world's intelligence agencies for having killed inside a Truce Zone — visits a Mexican dentist and asks to have all his teeth removed. It turns out to be a trap and his surrogate father Elliot recaptures him while he's under the anesthetic. Elliot asks his 'son' why he wanted his teeth removed, and is shocked to find he intended to commit suicide; as his body would never be identified, his surrogate family would think he had successfully escaped, thus being spared the pain of his death.
In the novella Angels of the Silences by Simon Bestwick, two teenage girls return as ghosts after being murdered, but they look just as they did when they were alive and are torn between whether to move on or try to return to their human lives. Eventually, the killer abducts their friend. The girls rescue her and set the house alight, killing the man by slowly roasting him over the flames. They are then able to stage their "deaths" and finally choose to move on to the next world - their bodies had actually lain in the house for months since they were killed, but are now so badly burned that they can only be identified by dental records, and no one knows how long the girls have really been dead.
Subverted in a post-war Biggles short story in which he receives a report of the death of an acquaintance of his from wartime service, whose charred skeleton was found in the wreckage of an aircraft owned by said wartime acquaintance, which he was flying in a solo speed-record attempt. It's only because Biggles insisted upon it that dental records were checked at all, at which point the incident ceases to become a crash investigation and turns into a homicide, because not only do the dental records not match but the body has a bullet embedded in its skull. It turns out that the guy had picked up a passenger, a young aviation enthusiast who just wanted a joyride, then shot him in the head and hit the silk. The body was supposed to provide the ultimate alibi while the perpetrator committed a jewellery heist. He ultimately ends up running out into the path of a truck whilst fleeing the police, and dental records end up being used a second time to identify what's left of him.
In the Joe Gunther novel Borderlines, after a body is discovered in a burned house it's announced that while they think they have a positive ID on him they'll have to wait until dental records confirm it. Since the novel was written in the 80s this is expected to take several weeks, and the records eventually show that he's not who they thought he was, and that man was actually alive. The real victim was someone who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Frequently on Bones, where they deal with corpses in advanced states of decay and/or dismemberment.
Also frequent in Wire in the Blood, where they deal with deeply disturbed people who either frantically mutilate their victims or cold-blooded sociopaths min-maxing their way to maximal bodycount by removing other identifying features from their victims.
Referenced on How I Met Your Mother when Barney says that, given the things he knows about Goliath National Bank, he'll never be fired, but that he might one day "wash up on shore with no fingerprints or teeth."
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: several episodes, being a long running cop show. For example "Bad To The Bone": skeletal remains are identified as Marissa Cleary from her dental records.
The Bill Several episodes. For example Season 5, Episode 6: "Life And Death" a man has a drug overdose after confessing to a murder. He is identified by dental records, allowing the police to track down his family.
One episode featured an odd variation: The one suspect in the murder case is said to have burned to death three years ago, and dental records confirm this... but the forensics team, on a hunch, tests the blood type of both the teeth and the corpse, and finds that they don't match. Meaning that the killer faked his own death all those years ago by removing his own teeth and gluing them in the corpse's skull.
In another episode, Tony is arrested for murder when he is tied to a bite mark on a dismembered leg via dental impressions. Turns out it was part of a chain of evidence set up by Abby's revenge-obsessed lab assistant, Chip.
There's an Urban Legend that the reason you're told to adopt the "brace position" or "crash position" in case of a plane crash or emergency landing is to preserve your dental records if you die. This was debunked on QI, and David Mitchell commented that he'd never believed it in the first place, because surely they'd just say, "In the unlikely event of the plane crashing, I think we can all agree you'd like to be identified. Bite down hard on your armrest."
Brought up on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia when Mac and Charlie want to fake their deaths. They leave a few of Charlie's teeth in a car. This is not how it works.
Mentioned in an episode of Hustle: a deceased criminal, quoth Morgan, "threw himself under a goods train a week after his release... there was so little left, by the time they scraped him off the track, they had to identify him from dental records". (Their goal is to make it seem like they Never Found the Body, and that he actually faked his death to abscond with the stolen gold.)
An episode of Law & Order had them discover skeletal remains where the teeth had been purposely removed by the killer to prevent positive ID.
One episode of The Mentalist had a body burned in a car identified by dental records. As it turned out, the dentist providing the actual records was helping the "victim" fake their death and supplied falsified records. The body was an unclaimed cadaver.
In the Grand Finale of House, House fakes his death by swapping his dental records with that of a drug addict whose body has been disfigured beyond recognition by a fire.
Averted on Breaking Bad where Hank and Gomez can't identify burnt corpse because "teeth do this popcorn thing at a certain temperature."
Double Subverted on one episode of Castle. The killer yanked out the victim's teeth to prevent dental identification and threw her in a bonfire to get rid of the body. But he didn't account for the fact that the victim had a titanium dental implant, and the team is able to identify her by tracing the serial number.
An interesting subversion of this can be found in most versions of Dungeons & Dragons regarding the spell Speak With Dead. In most cases, the spell required that the corpse's jaw was intact in order to function (basically the caster was briefly animating the corpse for the purpose of answering some questions) so a common practice was to remove the lower jaw of anyone you killed and didn't want blabbing about it later.
Mentioned in the opening sequence of Eternal Darkness, but the dental records cannot be used (because the victim's head is missing).
In Grim Fandango, the computer terminals at the Department of Death scan the user's teeth to give them access, which makes sense seeing as a person's chompers are one of the few identifying physical features one can carry over from the Land of the Living. This is used in a puzzle early on in the game, where Manny has to make a mold so that a local resistance group can make a replica of his teeth and access the Department of Death's computer network.
In Rama, Puck identifies the skeleton of Dr. Takagishi this way.
Dental records are one of the three methods of positive identification of human remains (the others being nuclear DNA and fingerprints). Dental records are used to identify thousands of people every year in the US, including murder and accident victims, suicides, and even living persons such as Alzheimer's victims who have strayed far from home. However, in real life dental records are used to confirm the name of an individual whose identity is already suspected; they cannot be used to magically provide the identity of a random corpse. Fiction sometimes forgets this.
The four Ted Bundy victims found at his Taylor Mountain dump site were identified by dental records — mainly because all they found were skulls and jawbones. One of the pieces of evidence presented at a trial was bite marks on one of his victims which were compared to Bundy's dental records.
Adolf Hitler's dentist was used by the Soviet special forces to identify his incinerated corpse they found outside the Führerbunker in Berlin.