The Spontenous Human Combustion Fallacy

Spontaneous Human Combustion

People have long been afraid of suddenly bursting into flames. In fact, as recently as 2011, a man who died in Ireland was recorded as dying of Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) by the local coroner.

However, despite the fear, there is really nothing to worry about. People do not spontaneously combust - despite continued and inaccurate statements to the contrary. But the phenomenon described as SHC does exist. People have been burned to small fragments yet leaving the lower arms and lower legs untouched. So what causes this?

The Wick Effect

Although no-one is really sure how these fires start, what is known is that for some reason the victim does not try to stop the fire on them. This may be because they have died already due to natural causes. The low intensity fire spreads across the body, and causes the body fats to melt. The melting fats seep into the victim’s clothing making a sort of inside-out candle. The body is the fuel on the inside surrounded by the clothing which acts as the wick - hence the name. The slow burn causes the body to disintegrate. This does not usually happen with burning, but the older age of the usual victims can mean that the bones are naturally weaker and more porous, and so are more easily destroyed. The fire spreads across the body, fueled by the melting fat. Until it reaches the elbows and knees, where there is not enough fat to maintain the fire, and so the damage does not continue.

The relatively low intensity of the fire means that the wider room is not usually affected. Hence all that remains is a mysteriously burned body, with undamaged limbs left next to the otherwise burned victim.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology

Durham University