Sustained Combustion of Bodies: Some Observations


  • Presented in part at the 61st Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, February 16–21, 2009, in Denver, CO.

Additional information and reprint requests:
John D. DeHaan, Ph.D.
Fire-Ex Forensics, Inc.
3505 Sonoma Blvd., #20-314
Vallejo, CA 94590


Abstract:  Previous tests have explored the fire effects and fuel characteristics of animal carcasses in intense fires of relatively short duration. Here, test fires were conducted involving intact human cadavers and torsos that included nonaccelerated, long-duration fires involving the bedding and clothing (in the manner of typical accidental deaths). The objective was to observe the fire conditions (size, radiant heat flux, and duration), where a human body represented the major fuel package in a nonaccelerated fire. The pattern of damage to the body was documented and compared with that resulting from a furnished room fire. Two intact, unembalmed human cadavers were exposed to fires of simulated accidental origin. The bedding was ignited by an open flame, and the fires were allowed to burn unaided to self-extinguishment. It was found that normal human bodies can support a modest-sized fire for some 6–7 h under these conditions. The presence of a substrate material that can act as a wick for the combustion of the rendered body fat results in extensive destruction of the torso where the greatest amount of subcutaneous fat resides, with less damage to the head and limbs. A third (partial) cadaver was exposed to a recreation of a typical accidental fire in a furnished room that progressed to full room involvement. This fire of some 15 min of total duration inflected only surface-layer damage to the torso of the victim.