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Identifying the Body

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Few things inspire more fear than losing a loved one. In this case, that fear comes true via characters being summoned by police to a morgue to identify a body they believe to be a family member of theirs. For the family of the victim, this can be partly expected if, say the victim had been missing for some time, but at others, it can come completely out of left field. Now they can do nothing save arrange a funeral.

In cases of disaster or other large-scale catastrophes, this may become an entire process, as they not only have to identify the body, they may first have to find it, going down rows of them, or having one after the other brought out, dragging the anxiety and tension out with each new dead face.

While this sort of scene is usually used for dramatic purposes, showing the relative bawling their eyes out over the corpse of their loved one or on someone else's chest, it can also serve to set up clues that may become important later in the plot, such as the relative sharing heretofore unknown information about the dead person's life or something unusual about the corpse itself.

Compare Death Notification and Zipping Up the Bodybag. If a body is damaged beyond identification, usually the Identification by Dental Records occurs instead.

As this is a Death Trope, beware of spoilers.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, Mari is asked to identify the body of her toddler daughter. However, she didn't check the face. It turns out her daughter's alive.

    Fan Works 
  • In Amazing Fantasy, All Might's civilian identity is called in to identified the body of Sir Nighteye after it's brutally mutilated by Mysterio. He laments that he was the only emergency contact listed and is on the verge of breaking down in tears when Gran Torino arrives to help him process his grief.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In the Father's Day short of Creepshow, Bedelia identifies her boyfriend Harold, whom her father had shot to keep Bedelia to heel. This is one of the reasons she bludgeons her father to death with an ashtray (the other being that maddening banging he made with his cane when he was upset, especially when he wanted his Father's Day cake).
  • The Grifters. After Lilly Dillon and Myra Langtry have their fight-to-the-death, Roy Dillon is called in to identify his mother's body. He notices that her hand doesn't have the scar that it should, and realizes that it isn't her body - it's Myra's. He identifies it as Lilly's anyway, because he realizes that she's on the run and needs people to think she's dead.
  • After one of Phil's suicides in Groundhog Day, Rita is shown identifying his body at the morgue, showing that the time loop isn't entirely dependent on him. Also played for laughs a bit, as his former cameraman notes it's a tragic loss while his body language screams "Ding dong, the witch is dead!".
  • L.A. Confidential: When one of the Nite Owl victims is identified as Susan Lefferts, the police bring in her mother to verify her identity. While she's changed a lot appearance-wise because of cosmetics, the mother confirms it's her daughter because of a birthmark on her hip. Bud White also recognizes Susan as he'd seen her with bandages on her face a few weeks prior at Christmas, a detail he keeps to himself as he pursues his own line of investigation.
  • Outrageous Fortune: After Michael Santers is apparently killed in an explosion, his two girlfriends both insist on identifying the body. Although the body's face was completely burned off, both women agree that the body can't be his because the penis was too small.
  • Ruthless People: Sam is brought in to identify his wife Barbara. When the corpse is revealed, it's a black man. Sam deadpans, "That's not her."
  • Spoofed in Superhero Movie: After Rick's aunt is killed by the Hourglass, Rick is asked to identify the body:
    Doctor: This is going to be difficult, but we need you to identify the body.
    Rick: [takes a look] That's not my aunt.
    Doctor: I know. That's why it's so difficult.
  • Wes Craven's New Nightmare: Heather Langenkamp has to identify her husband's corpse after he dies in a mysterious car crash caused by Freddy Krueger. The coroner tries to shield her from the worst of it by only showing her his face, but when Heather pulls down the rest of the cover, the giant slash marks on his chest are shocking enough to cause her to throw up right on the spot.

  • The Accidental Tourist: Grieving, emotionally shocked Macon has to identify his son Ethan's body. Almost unemotionally, Macon says, "Yes. That is my son." When Sarah asks him what it was like, and Macon says that the body was Ethan, but the thing that made Ethan Ethan was gone.
  • 87th Precinct: In Tricks, a stage magician's decapitated body is found and his wife identifies him by some scars on the body. They actually had faked his death and the body is that of his assistant.
  • Judge Dee: This is a common part of the procedure when an unknown body is brought to the tribunal. Usually there's extra difficulty involved, like the deceased lacking a head.
  • In The Problem of Susan, the elderly professor recalls having to go to the school where her relatives, victims of a terrible train collision, were taken after death, to identify them, and says Susan of the Narnia books must have gone something similar as well.
  • In The Virgin in the Ice, Brother Cadfael has to ask a boy, Yves Hugonin, to identify his sister's body, as they were traveling away from home and no adult relatives are available. Yves identifies the corpse — not as his sister but as the young nun who was traveling with them.
  • Whose Body?, the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, has a harrowing scene in which a woman is called upon to help identify the corpse of her husband, which was cut up into pieces after the death. Making it worse is that the head has been so mutilated as to be unrecognizable, so the identification relies on her knowledge of the rest of his body.

    Live-Action TV 
  • A memorable example from Castle, where the mother of the assumed victim—a Miley Cyrus expy actress—angrily declares that the body does not belong to her daughter, but to her daughter's body double. She's not very happy to have been led to believe her daughter was dead. Although, since she's the one who killed the body double in the first place, her anger is just misdirection.
  • In one episode of Dark Angel Max sees a body on TV with the barcode tattoo of one of her brothers on it, so she asks to identify the body. It's not him, he's become a Serial Killer who tattoos his barcode on his victims.
  • Subverted on The Detail. A man comes in to see if a body found burned in a dumpster might be his missing brother but the body is too badly burned for the standard visual identification. The man ends up describing an old injury that his brother had and the police get a tentative identification based on the victim having the same injury in the past. They end up having to do a blood test for conclusive identification. Throughout this, the victim's brother is in tears as his hope that it is not his brother slowly evaporates.
  • Inspector Morse: In "Service Of All The Dead", the identification of the first victim (by a fellow churchgoer) is a crucial part of the plot.
  • Leverage: "The Big Bang Job" has the team trying to thwart an international arms dealer's sale of a giant EMP bomb, who at one point has one of his suppliers bumped off. Fortunately, the team was able to fake his death and they cap it off with Sophie, posing as the man's wife, coming in and "identifying" his body with great heaving sobs.
  • Magnum, P.I.: In an episode where Rick's little sister comes for a visit, Magnum takes her out for an evening, where she proves to be not quite as sweet and innocent as Rick would like, and vanishes partway through the night. In the morning, Rick and Magnum go to file a missing person report, made rather difficult as they seem to be describing two different girls, but one of the officers has them come to the morgue, as there's a body that matches Magnum's description. After a commercial break, the two are driving home, as Magnum's Private Eye Monologue talks about how Rick hasn't said a word since they saw the body.
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000: The traffic safety short "Last Clear Chance" (from the Radar Secret Service episode) ends with Frank Jr. failing to watch the road and dying in a collision with a moving train. His brother Alan saw the accident and is obviously distraught, and Trooper Hal tries to comfort him. Then Crow decides to inject some Black Comedy into the scene:
    Crow: (as Trooper Hal) Could you identify this bucketful of your brother?
  • The Odd Couple (1970): In "Felix is Missing", Felix goes missing and Murray eventually manages to ask Oscar to come down to the morgue to identify a body he thinks is Felix. Oscar is subdued with grief until he sees the body, whereupon he's shocked that they could actually think the guy was Felix. (The police had "identified" the body by the wallet.)
  • Stranger Things: In "The Body", upon the discovery of what appears to be Will Byers' body, Joyce and Jonathan go down to the morgue to identify it. When the body is uncovered, Jonathan can't take it and leaves to avoid a Stress Vomit. Joyce is still unwilling to believe that her son is dead and demands to be shown the birthmark on Will's arm. The lack of birthmark, combined with a bunch of other irregularities, is what leads Hopper to eventually discover the body is a fake.
  • Parodied in A Touch of Cloth. The parents of a murdered teenage girl go to visit their daughter's corpse in the morgue, with the usual uber-dramatic music and slow-mo crying. It turns out that the ethereal music is being performed by a choir boy standing to the side. Then he suddenly shifts to Bow Chicka Wow Wow music, and unspeakable things happen.
  • In the opening of the Trust episode "John, Chapter 11" Gail has to identify the remains of Little Paul, who was supposedly burned to death beyond recognition. While the shoes are his, she realizes that the body is not, because the shoes are tied; Little Paul doesn't like wearing shoes and thus never ties the laces properly.
  • The Wire: After the Barksdales start retaliating against Omar and his gang, they gruesomely torture and kill his boyfriend Brandon before dumping his body to Make an Example of Them. Omar asks McNulty to "see Brandon" to confirm it's really him, who accompanies him to the morgue. The sight is unbearable enough to cause the normally stoic Omar to howl in rage and despair.
  • Subverted in Briarpatch, where Felicity Dill's remains are so burned that her sister Allegra is just shown photographs of the parts that are still identifiable.
  • Daredevil (2015): When Elena Cardenas is killed on Wilson Fisk's orders, Brett Mahoney has Matt, Karen, and Foggy come down to the morgue to identify her. Karen and Foggy are reduced to tears, and their reaction leaves Matt deadset on killing Fisk, unknowingly walking into a trap Fisk has set for him.

    Video Games 
  • Eternal Darkness opens with Alex Roivas being called in to do this for her grandfather. She does so via his ring, as he's missing his head. After the police fail to solve the murder, she takes matters into her own hands, and finds the Tome of Eternal Darkness, beginning the plot.
  • Grim Fandango: Membrillo, Rubacava's mortician, talks about dealing with people he has to come to the morgue to identify their loved ones. He later calls Velasco to identify what he thinks is one of his sailors' body.

    Web Videos 
  • Happened offscreen in a Everyman HYBRID episode. Their close friend had died in a car accident heavily implied to be created by the monster tormenting them online, and the mutilation was so bad, his mother had to go and identify her son's body; Vinnie went with her, which is how he noticed some of the details not matching up with the official report.

    Western Animation 
  • Spoofed in the Family Guy episode "Foxx in the Men House"; when Peter's new friend Stryker slams into a cliff while wingsuiting, Peter has an Imagine Spot of having to identify the body. In the Imagine Spot, what's left of Stryker is a bowl of liquid, which Peter compares to soup.
  • Spoofed on Rocko's Modern Life. When Heffer goes missing, his parents go to a butcher's shop to identify a butchered steer; thankfully, it wasn't him.
  • Spoofed in The Simpsons where Marge is called to a mortuary. The corpse (Moleman) is not only not her uncle, but he's still alive.


Video Example(s):


Tears at the Morgue

An emotional scene at the morgue where Jaime has to identify the body of his wife who died in a car crash.

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Main / IdentifyingTheBody

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