Date of Award
Master of Arts
William M. Bass
David J. Icove, Richard L. Jantz, Lyle W. Konigsberg
Human combustion has been described as "the nearly complete combustion of living human beings in the apparent absence of sufficient external fuel" and it has been inferred from this that either the "human body is unexpectedly combustible of itself or, more controversially, some unrecognized external energy source is acting on the body" (Corliss 1993). Advocates of the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion, or SHC, have hypothesized everything from potables to poltergeists to pyrotrons to account for the unusual circumstances surrounding these deaths.
Mainstream science, however, contends that although strange, a scientific explanation for the phenomenon does exist. Several studies have suggested that once ignited by an external source, the combination of melted fat and a carbonaceous wick (in the form of clothing, carpet or upholstery) can sustain a small, localized fire capable of a significant degree of bodily destruction. Advocates of SHC argue that the "candle effect" or "wick effect" as this hypothesis is known, has failed in past experiments to replicate (and therefore account for) the degree of bone incineration common to many of these cases. This failure, however, may be due primarily to the use of inappropriate subjects. While pigs (previously the most commonly used subjects for this type of research) may be similar to humans in terms of body fat content, they fail to represent the profile of alleged SHC victims in many ways.
It is hypothesized here that victims of alleged SHC, being largely elderly females, are predisposed to more complete incineration because of both a relatively greater body fat content and a relatively lower bone density. It has long been observed by those who work in crematoriums that the time it takes to incinerate a body is largely dependent on the condition and size of the body. Those individuals with more body fat tend to bum hotter and faster than those with less body fat (Fred Adamat, personal communication 1999). Furthermore, elderly individuals tend to take much less time to cremate than younger individuals. One funeral director indicates that the average time for cremation is about 2-2.5 hours, with some young, well-built individuals taking up to 3.5 hours to completely cremate while elderly individuals often take less than one hour (Helen Taylor, personal communication 2000).
This research lends further support to the "wick effect" hypothesis through two experiments. Both experiments used human rather than pig or other animal subjects. This has not been done frequently in the past due to inaccessibility of human subjects by many researchers, but because the circumstances surrounding these deaths require very specific conditions, I think the use of human materials is essential to replicating these conditions as nearly as possible. An experiment on the heat of combustion of human tissues strongly suggested that the constituents of the human body will sustain a low heat, localized fire capable of consuming a significant amount of mass. Additionally, experiments conducted burning "healthy" versus osteoporotic human bone demonstrated that less dense bone has a propensity to incinerate more quickly and more thoroughly than normal, healthy bone.
Christensen, Angi M., "Debunking the Spontaneous Human Combustion Myth: Experiments in the Combustibility of the Human Body. " Master's Thesis, University of Tennessee, 2000.