How Bodies Burn

Due to the number of requests by our readers, Death Investigator Magazine will be featuring articles taken from interviews heard on our world-renowned podcast, Coroner Talk™. What follows is part one of an interview with Forensic Anthropologist Doctor, Elaine Pope, regarding the science of burning bodies. To listen to this interview in its entirety, go to www.coronertalk.com and select the podcast titled How Bodies Burn.

How Bodies Burn with Darren Dake and Dr. Elaine Pope

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Host Darren Dake: Dr. Pope, welcome to the show. We’re glad to have you today.

Dr. Pope: Hello.

Dake: So, tell us a little bit about your background and your work history. Then we’ll get into some of the research that you’ve done and how you can help us as investigators.

Pope:  Well, I started off as a forensic anthropologist. I studied bones of the skeleton, and I got my doctorate at the University of Arkansas. I’ve worked in the university system as well as the coroner and medical examiner systems. Basically, I burned bodies and studied the burn patterns that are created in the skin, in the subcutaneous fat, in the muscle and especially the bone. That’s where I became interested in where the heat meets the skeleton and the burn patterns that it produced on the skeleton.

Dake: And now currently you are in Virginia, is that right?

Pope: Correct. I’m in the medical examiner’s office in Tidewater District in Norfolk, Virginia. And I do autopsies at the medical examiner’s office and also the forensic anthropology.

Dake: And there are opportunities I guess where people will send you information, or you can consult and things on certain cases outside of Virginia sometimes, right?

Pope: Correct, yes, I do private casework. People will send me pictures of burned remains and ask me to talk about the patterns and possibly the duration of how long the body burned, and that may help them out with narrowing down an alibi.

A lot of times, we look at the body and within its environment in terms of how it burned. A body’s going to burn differently in a house fire than it will in a car fire, just because of the size of the environment. Like, say, for example, a car fires a lot smaller and has a lot of combustible fuels in it, so it’ll create burn patterns in a much greater rate than say in a structure fire that has wood furnishings as well as plastic furnishings. But it’s a broader space. And so, the development of the fire takes a little bit longer. The dynamics of the fire are a little bit different in a structure than they are in a vehicle. So, it depends on the scene that the body comes from, the time and the duration and the temperatures that will affect the burning to the body.

Dake: Right. And I want to get into some of those individually with structures and with houses and different things. I want to back up just a minute, and we’ll talk a little bit about some of the research. I met you at a conference a couple of years ago, and I was fortunate enough to be able to sit with a few other people at your table and have lunch, and you’re a very fascinating person.

You had talked about some research that you had done, and I find it fascinating too for our readers, to talk about some of this research to show that this is not just textbook; this is actual research that you’ve done on body parts and on bodies. So, tell us a little bit about some of the different types of research you’ve done with the body parts or the environment and what you’ve found out over the years. Basically, I want to set the groundwork to show that number one, you obviously know what you’re talking about and number two, it kind of gives a basis for our readers to say, “Wow, I didn’t even know that research was even done out there.” Because this is something that isn’t necessarily talked about.

Pope: Okay. So, the research I do, I do it every year out in California, Saint Elizabeth, California. And we get bodies from a place in Memphis, Tennessee and they’re driven out every year and each year we build structures, we build houses, we have cars, and we have outdoor fires, and different types of scenarios and the bodies are placed in these different types of scenarios. And we observe and we docent the time and the temperature, of all the heat-related changes that occur in these different environments. And we replicate them over and over and over and over. And that’s how we’ve been able to discover patterns that result from vehicle fires and from structure fires and from outdoor fires that are intentionally set.

So, this research has been going on for the past nine years. We’re coming up on our ninth year this year, and it’s out in San Luis Obispo, California. And, like I said, it’s all based on bodies and how they respond to heat. So, the soft tissues, the skin, the fat, and the muscle and the bone. And it’s a teaching course as well. And students get to participate in the burning process. They get to observe bodies burn. So that way the next time that they go to testify in their court cases they can say that they’ve seen a body burn and they understand the mechanics behind it and the process behind it.

Dake: So, obviously that is valuable research because you’re not just looking at a crime scene, you’re looking at something that’s in a controlled environment. So, you get a controlled results time and time again, which will then give us the idea of what to look for in a crime scene setting.

So, let’s talk a little bit about what happens to a body during the burning process. And I want to start first with an outdoor scene. The reason I want to start there is, there’s nothing else around, I mean, you’re not in a structure, you don’t have the high-intensity heat buildup. It’s like open air. So, what causes the body to burn? And it kind of becomes its own wick. How does that take place?

Pope: Correct. Okay. So, we’ve done bodies outdoors, in the absence of structures and vehicles, where ignitable liquids are poured onto the body, and the liquids will burn for the first five minutes. And then they basically burn out. And then if you get the development of a skin split on the body, which exposes subcutaneous fat and basically becomes a fuel source in the fire. If you have those things in place, then the fire transitions from an ignitable liquids fire to a subcutaneous fat fueled fire that can burn on its own for hours actually because we have so much subcutaneous fat in the body. We’ve got it under the skin, in visceral fat and also in the marrow, so the body can burn on its own for several hours in the outdoor setting.

And it does so first by changes in the skin, and what we see, the earliest changes that occur are going to be blisters on the skin followed by skin flicks because your skin is really elastic. So, it starts to split open when it’s exposed to heat from shrinkage. And then it exposes the layers of subcutaneous fat underneath, and that liquefies, and it renders out, and it becomes absorbed into whatever is surrounding the bodies, if the bodies are wearing clothing. It can become absorbed in the clothing.

And that turns into what’s called the wick effect, where basically you’ve got subcutaneous fat that’s liquified and rendered, becoming absorbed into an absorbent material like clothing or like carpeting or wood floor, or if we’re talking about outdoor fire, into the surrounding dried grass or any other materials under the body. So that’ll sustain as long as there’s subcutaneous fat coming from the body through the skin split, then you’ll get a sustaining of the fire, and it’ll continue to burn on its own for several hours if it’s left unchecked. So it’s not a very high-temperature fire. It doesn’t put off a lot of light and doesn’t put off a lot of heat. But it is a process that continues going, and the body will render down to muscle and down to the skeleton, within several hours of burning on its own.

Dake: So, I’ve worked cases where, for example, an older gentleman was out burning leaves and ended up having a heart attack, and the fire continued to burn to him. And then he did get burned, but then it burned passed.

And we’ve had three or four cases over the last few years where the fire burned passed, and we’d find them charred and in some form of burned state. But the reason why I guess he never continued to burn was that there wasn’t enough heat to split skin or the clothes didn’t catch right. There’s probably a lot of variables there, but why would some bodies burn quicker than others when they all have fire all around them?

Pope: Well, it depends on the amount of subcutaneous fat that the victim has. If you have a really skinny person, they may not have enough subcutaneous fat to continue a fire. It may burn for like a few minutes or up to thirty minutes. In somebody that’s got a little bit more subcutaneous fat, it could burn up to an hour. Of course, it comes down to the individual victim, you know, if they’re male or female, females are going to have higher concentrations of body fat than males do.

The age of the victim also comes into play, you know, in terms of how much subcutaneous fat is present. Elderly people, a lot of times, lose a lot of their subcutaneous fat and lose a lot of their muscle mass, so it comes down to the victim’s body size as well as the conditions of the fire. Were the temperatures significant enough to cause splits or just enough to singe the hair and the skin? Or, is there wind? You know, we experienced that out in California where we have some nice winds that come through, and they ventilate the fires very, very well and leave nice burn patterns on the body as a result of that. As opposed to a higher humidity area like Florida where you wouldn’t have such winds like what we see. So, there are different variables that come into play.

Part 2 of this fascinating interview coming in next month’s edition