What Happens When A Human Body Burns To Death

Burning to death, also known as immolation, is arguably one of the worst possible ways to die. The process is both slow and painful, though some die from the side effects of burning before the body is fully incinerated.

Immolation has been a form of both punishment and protest for centuries. From the sainted Joan of Arc being burned at the stake for her religious beliefs to the Tibetan monk Thich Quang Duc setting himself ablaze to protest the persecution of Buddhists in 1963, the historical record of immolation spans centuries.

In this list, we'll explore some of the grizzly and surprising facts about what can happen to the human body when it burns to death.

Photo: American Horror Story / FX

  • Fire Can Peel Away The Skin, And Muscles Contract

    A fire will first burn and peel away the epidermis, the thin outer layer of skin. After about five minutes under a flame, the thicker layer of skin - the dermis - shrinks and splits open, and fat begins to leak out.

    Muscles in the body will also begin to contract, which is why burnt bodies, such as the ones found in Pompeii, are described as taking on a "boxer pose."

  • Suffocation May Occur Due To Smoke Inhalation

    As the lungs inhale smoke from a blaze, the respiratory system begins to fail, causing the person to suffocate.

    Even if a person survives severe burns, the lungs can fill with fluid, which in turn can lead to suffocation.

  • The Body May Begin To Decompose

    Another cause of fire-related death is the thermal decomposition of vital organs and body parts.

    In these cases, a fire's heat will cause organs to shrink and shut down. The flame itself can also hasten thermal decomposition.

  • Burning Can Result In A Loss Of Blood

    If a person on fire doesn't die from suffocation or shock, the next likeliest cause of death will be a loss of blood or fluids, also known as hypovolemia.

    Severe burns to the skin trigger an inflammatory response, which causes capillaries to leak. If the capillaries leak too much blood, a person can bleed out.

  • Once A Fire Burns Through The Skin, The Body Doesn't Feel Pain

    Although burning to death is considered one of the most painful ways to die, there is an end to the pain. Immolation is most painful in the very beginning as the skin begins to burn. Once the skin and its nerve endings burn away, the body more or less feels nothing at all.

    That being said, the relatively quick process of burning through the flesh is still excruciating.

  • The Heat Of The Fire Can Hasten Death

    When the temperature of the human body rises above 105 degrees Fahrenheit, enzymes inside the body are no longer able to function properly.

    This extreme change in body temperature can lead to major organ failure as well as shock.