Like a Fighter: Why the burned dead sometimes look like they are ready to punch you

Ever wondered why a burned corpse sometimes has its hands up like the fists of a boxer? Of course you haven’t! Because you are a normal person. But I am a Crime writer. And that means my thoughts often move in detailed and macabre directions. Frankly my search history is SCARY. [That’s actually a great category for blog posts! And this is the inaugural post in the category.]

In And By Fire, there’s a murderous arsonist terrorizing greater London (if you haven’t already read my post on the 2 Londons with their separate police, click here—no seriously, do it now), and it’s the unenviable task of DI’s Parker and O’Leary to stop him as bodies begin to pile up like firewood.

Burnt bodies—like other bodies—certainly come in different shapes and sizes. But often burnt corpses are found in what is called a “pugilistic pose.” This is basically a defensive-looking pose, reminiscent of a boxer—hands up, possibly guarding his face, knees bent. Although the case of the dead (as opposed to a boxer in the ring) the whole body is often in a fetal position of sorts (and seriously, that’s not very boxer-like).

Seeing this pose, a layman might think the deceased raised her hands to protect herself while dying—a pretty horrifying thought. But nope, the pugilistic position actually occurs involuntarily and naturally when the large (sometimes called “strong”) muscles in human limbs contract due to exposure to high temperatures over a long period of time. The movement of the body to this position—legs and arms bent with cupped (sometimes to the point of being fist-like) hands raised—occurs gradually, not in a sudden, jerking, motion.

So a burned corpse in the pugilistic position tells investigators that the deceased was exposed to high heat during or shortly after death. In contrast, finding a burned body in a position other than this “fighty” attitude can suggest (if both the heat and the length of exposure to it should have been sufficient to trigger the pose) that the corpse was dead long enough for Rigor Mortis begin before it was burned.

Aren’t you glad you asked? Oops you didn’t. Sorry.

Leave a Comment