Unique thermal destruction of the body following suicidal burning

Abstract

The concept of spontaneous combustion has huge appeal as an historical fiction but it has no scientific background. However, in some deaths involving fire, a body can burn away virtually completely with minimal thermal destruction to the neighboring environment. We report an extraordinary case of the self-immolation of an elderly woman who set herself on fire with suicidal intentions. The unusual appearance and location of the body closely resembled the phenomenon of so-called spontaneous human combustion because the upper parts of the body were almost totally destroyed by fire, while the legs and surrounding structures remained almost untouched by flames. The results of all investigations proved that the woman set fire to her body using a box of matches and accelerants (concentrated ethanol and a solid firelighter). Near-total combustion of her body subsequently occurred during the postmortem period. The development of alleged spontaneous human combustion requires the following: ignition (external heat source), fuel (molten human fat), a wick (e.g. charred and porous clothing, bedding, or ground), time, and an optimal microclimate for gradual burning.

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Correspondence to Petr Hejna.

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Hejna, P., Bohnert, M. & Janík, M. Unique thermal destruction of the body following suicidal burning. Forensic Sci Med Pathol 15, 262–266 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12024-018-0076-6

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Keywords

  • Spontaneous human combustion
  • Auto-combustion
  • Atypical burning
  • Burned remains
  • Burned bones
  • Self-immolation