Forensic Pathology Reviews

Volume 1 of the series Forensic Pathology Reviews pp 3-27

Morphological Findings in Burned Bodies

  • Michael Bohnert

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Morphological findings in burned bodies may cover a broad spectrum. They can range from minor, local, superficial burns of the skin to calcined skeletal remains without any soft tissue left. The external as well as the internal findings in burned bodies depend on the temperature actually applied to the body, the time for which it is applied, the kind of transmission of the heat to the body, and other prevailing conditions. The consequences are burns of the exposed tissue, changes in the content and distribution of tissue fluid, fixation of the tissue, and shrinking processes. In case of direct contact with the flames, the organic matter is consumed as fuel. Only in very rare cases do the effects of the heat cease with the time of death. Consequently, many findings seen at autopsy may be of postmortem origin with fluent transitions between intravital, perimortal, and postmortem changes. Apart from burns (first- to fourth- degree), the external findings may include leathery consolidation and tightening of the skin and the presence of partly long splits. The so-called pugilistic attitude is the result of the shrinkage of muscles and tendons. The internal organs may be considerably reduced in size because of fluid loss and consumption by the fire (so-called “puppet organs”). Heat-related fluid shifts may cause vesicular detachment of the epidermis (false burn blisters) on the skin and pseudo-hemorrhages in the form of heat hematomas inside the body. The latter are most frequently seen in the skull but can also occur in the hollow organs of the abdomen. In the same way, accumulations of large droplets of fat may occur in the vessels, the blood of the right ventricle, or the epidural space. The respiratory tract is the most important organ system for the diagnosis of vitality. Where fire fumes were inhaled, deposits of soot particles will be found. Edema or bleeding of mucous membranes and patchy or vesicular detachment of the mucosa maybe indicative of an inhalation of hot gases. Consumption by the fire causes a progressive loss of soft tissue, exposure of the body cavities, and amputation of extremities. Complete cremation of an adult body is reached only under extreme circumstances. Even if high temperatures are applied for several hours, there will usually still be enough skeletal remains to allow successful determination of the species, the body measurements, and the sex as well as to identify skeletal anomalies and the presence of possible injuries.

Key Words

Burns charring shrinkage of tissue consumption by fire heat-related fluid shift spurious wounds heat hematoma skin splitting