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Crispy Corpses

20 May

Today I want to make a few comments about the burning of human corpses. First of all, I’d like to thank Leslie Ellen Jones Ph.D. for posting a link to an excellent article on the myths that surround corpses and fires on the Sisters in Crime eGroup today. I will supply a link to this article at the end of this post so that you all can read about this fascinating topic.

Unfortunately people die in home fires on an almost daily basis. Sometimes the medical examiner is faced with the difficult task of identifying a charred corpse. It’s not always as easy as it sounds. The face is unrecognizable, fingerprints burned away. If there are no dental records or DNA available, then the ID process can grind to a halt. I should point out that sometimes a body is so severely charred that there are no undamaged tissues remaining and those that are have been cooked to the point that usable DNA can’t be extracted. Here the ME might be able to glean some DNA by drilling into the teeth. The enamel will sometimes protect the pulp tissues enough so that usuable DNA survives. Or not. It could go either way.

Killers often attempt to dispose of bodies with the use of fire or by some other seemingly creative means. Some use acids, some use lye, and some even employ the old wood chipper. But the most common is by the use of fire.

Sometimes they will attempt to burn the building that the body is in, other times it will be an automobile, and at still other times they’ll dig a shallow pit an attempt to burn the body there. The problem is that most corpses won’t cooperate. It’s very difficult to destroy a human body. Think about it. When a body is cremated it is placed in an oven, very similar to a kiln used for ceramics, the temperature is raised to the neighborhood of 1500° or so, and the body is left there for a couple of hours. This will reduce the body to ash but even here sometimes bone fragments and teeth survive.

Most fires simply don’t get that hot for that period of time. At least not the part in contact or below the body. Let’s say a body is placed in a house and the house is then torched. As the house burns its support structures collapse, bringing the house with them. This might bury the body beneath the burning wood. Since heat rises  and the wood fuel is above the body, the corpse is relatively protected from the ravages of the fire. This is why corpses pulled from burning buildings are often severely charred but not completely destroyed. The same can be said for automobiles and fire pits. Bottom line is that it is just very difficult to destroy a body with fire. In the article there is a case of a body being burned in the trunk of a car. The physics of that situation are discussed there so I won’t repeat them here.

Another topic covered in the article is that of the position of a charred corpse. Sometimes the heat of the fire will desiccate (dry out) the muscles, causing them to contract, and when this happens the body will often take on what is called the pugilistic or fighters stance. The arms will curl against the chest or beneath the chin and the knees will flex slightly. Very reminiscent of the position a boxer takes in the middle of the ring. This doesn’t always happen but when it does it’s both dramatic and spooky.

The article also discusses the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion. Does this even exist? No one really knows. This topic is the subject of great discussion and controversy that borders on the metaphysical. There have been many cases of bodies found that were severely burned but the areas surrounding the body have been completely free of  fire damage. It appears as though the body simply burned up and that there was no external source of ignition. These are often cigarette smokers and a burning cigarette supplied the fire source. This can happen in enclosed areas where the oxygen supply might be limited. In this case, once the fire starts, rather than bursting into flames, the body smolders. As the body temperature rises and the skin splits from the heat, the body fat is exposed. This creates what is called a “wick effect.” Much like the tallow of a candle. The result is that the body slowly smolders, with the fat supplying the fuel, until it is reduced to a black, greasy mass. There’s an article on this subject in Wikipedia. The link is below.

Body Burners: The Forensics of Fire

Spontaneous Human Combustion–Wikipedia article

I hope this sparks some ghoulish story ideas for you.

 

5 responses to “Crispy Corpses

  1. Laura Benedict

    May 20, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Not only useful, but quite timely–Thanks!

    Like

     
  2. Donnell

    May 20, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Dr. Lyle, fascinating. My apologies; I’ve failed to get over to your blog sooner. So much information. Goulish indeed! Regarding spontaneous combustion, I often wonder. My husband accuses me of burning up during menopause. If anything happens to me, he’s suspect number one😉

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  3. Pat Browning

    May 20, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    Fascinating article. I also checked out the Geddes article. It reminded me of a case years ago when a local man was found burned to death in the trunk of a car. They ID’d him because of the fancy belt buckle he was wearing. Nothing else survived the fire.

    Of course, that was before DNA and other modern techniques — but the circumstantial evidence and motivation were overwhelming.

    Pat Browning

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    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      May 21, 2009 at 9:04 am

      Not uncommonly that’s the case. The body might not survive the fire in any recognizable form but belt buckles, rings and jewelry, and sometimes even shoes and belts might. If these are distinctive they can help ID the victim. In addition, artificial joints and pacemakers, which have serial numbers that are kept in manufacturer’s databases, can come through intact and the victim IDed that way.

      Like

       
  4. Wilfred Bereswill

    May 21, 2009 at 5:44 am

    Doug, nice topic to begin my day. As alway great information. Thanks.

    Like

     

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