How Bodies Burn

So, this is the kind of stuff that sends waiters scuttling away looking worried if you discuss it with friends over lunch (yes authors do that), and that makes authors certain they will be arrested if a body is ever found near their home. BUT honestly scientists probably have the same concerns, especially Elayne Pope who burns corpses for research!

Below, I am going to offer up some nice, gruesome highlights on burning bodies—turn back now, before it is too late—but if you want to read more, I recommend this piece from the New Scientist (informed by Pope’s work as well as input from other fire experts).


🔥 Limbs of trees and limbs of people have something in common . . . the way they burn. First the outer layers of skin begin to burn, peeling back as the flames “dance across their surface” [the article’s words not mine], like bark peels back on a burning branch. About five minutes into the burn the thicker, dermal, layer of our human skin begins to split open, giving the fire access to a terrific source of fuel—body fat.

🔥 Body fat is like a candle. Like the wax in a candle, glorious yellow body fat makes good fuel for flames, but benefits from something acting as a wick. If the victim has clothing on, for example, that clothing will absorb the liquifying fat and offer it up to the hungry fire. Keep that imagine in mind next time you light that favorite candle in your bedroom.

🔥 Bodies can put in nearly a full day’s work . . . um, I mean burning. If there is enough wicking material (cloth, wood) to keep body fat fueling the flames, the average corpse can burn for up to seven hours. During this time, the large muscles contract as they dry out leading to—as previously discussed here—a classic pugilistic pose.

🔥 Bone goes last. Bone takes a long time to burn and some pretty high temperatures to disappear completely (I mean cremation takes a lot of heat). So even if the body is in flames for a full seven hours—until its fat runs out—there is usually a charred skeleton left behind “coated in the greasy residue of burned flesh.” [seriously these phrases are ghoulish—open the article for more of them].

🔥 Think you can hide the fact you murdered someone by stabbing or shooting them if you burn their body . . . think again. Turns out the heat from the fire causes wounds—blade wound, bullet wounds, any kind of wound that breaks the skin really—to open up: a) making them rather easy for the coppers to spot if the body is extinguished before it burns down to bones; and b) exposing the bone beneath the wound to more heat, so that even if the flesh and muscle are consumed entirely the wounds leave a “record” on the skeleton beneath.

That’s it for this episode of “My Search History is Scary.” I’d tell you to try to forget what you’ve just read, but I am betting you can’t. Besides, the facts above may come in handy when corpses start turning up in And By Fire.

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