This is a great, if slightly unpleasant, question and it’s certainly one that anyone considering becoming a firefighter may think about. That’s because sooner or later, you will probably encounter a burned body on the job and it’s always best to be prepared for that moment so that you can better keep your wits about you.
The smell of a burning body is the combination of burning skin, muscle, fat, hair, organs, spinal fluid, bacteria and even, possibly, bone. That means there’s a very complex smell to burning bodies, but it is one that is completely unmistakable and once you smell it you won’t forget it.
Though this is a strange question, it is a valid one. Here’s what you need to know about people and their flammability.
Your # 1 priority is keeping your family safe. As a firefighter, I recommend everyone has updated smoke detectors that don’t require battery changes, like these ones from Kidde, a fire extinguisher, like this one from Amerex, and a fire escape ladder if you have bedrooms above the first floor, I recommend this one from Hausse.
Also read: House Fire Temperature: How Hot Does It Get?
What Does Burning Flesh Smell Like?
This is quite a complicated question because human beings tend to smell different depending on which bit (or bits) of them catch on fire.
Firstly, muscle tissue is a kind of red meat and when it burns, it’s not dissimilar to the scent of a steak frying on the stove.
Your body fat, on the other hand, smells more like pork being slow-roasted on a grill.
This may be why cannibal tribes describe human beings as “long pork” (and, indeed, they do say that human beings tend to taste more like pork than any other meat – something that we are not willing to verify for ourselves, so, you’ll have to trust them on this).
However, when a human being catches fire, they don’t tend to get cooked like the meat you get at the butcher’s shop on a BBQ. That’s because one of the things your friendly neighborhood butcher will hang the meat that they sell and they do this, in part, to ensure that the meat is reasonably free of blood.
A burning human being, on the other hand, is likely to be full of blood and this will burn too – burning blood has a sort of coppery tinge to the aroma.
Then you’ve got all the internal organs to deal with.
These are among the least combustible parts of human beings because they have a very high water content, but that won’t stop them from boiling in their own fluid to produce a liver-like smell (as at least one of your organs is your liver, of course).
You also have your spinal fluid, and this tends to smell rather sweet with a sort of musky undertone while it burns.
Our hair is the worst smell of them all, your hair has a very high sulfur content, which means that when it burns it produces both Sulphur Dioxide and Hydrogen Sulfide; two gasses that have a very distinct sulfurous smell that can be very difficult to scrub out of your nostrils even days later.
Burning hair is the worst.
It’s unlikely that your bones will burn in most fires but, if you head to a crematorium, you will notice that the bodies they burn there are not so fresh. In fact, they’re full of bacteria churning out methane at an incredible rate.
The stench of burning methane is fairly obvious when a corpse catches fire.
Put all of these things together and it’s fair to say that a human body doesn’t have an easy to describe aroma when it’s on fire. There is a hint of pork/beef to it but it’s also sweet and often has an underlying sickness to it too and it can be so pungent that it even seems to become a physical taste.
One thing nobody disputes though is that it’s one of the most recognizable scents in the world and once you smell it, you will never forget it.
Also read: Is Urine/Pee Flammable? Can It Start a Fire?
Are Humans Flammable?
No, they’re not particularly flammable.
The main reason that we’re not very flammable is that our bodies contain a fairly substantial amount of water (about 60% of the body – though this varies throughout the overall makeup of our bodies in distribution, so your lungs, for example, are about 83% water, but your bones are only 31% water).
This question is one that regularly vexes professors of biology, coroners, police, etc. because of the phenomenon known as “spontaneous human combustion” (SHC).
SHC is a peculiar thing where human bodies are discovered either entirely or partially burned to ash, but with none of the surrounding area suffering much or any fire damage.
One theory used in these cases of SHC is that the person catches fire and somehow burns so intensely and quickly that they extinguish the flames as the human fuel source is used up. The trouble with this theory is that it requires an unusual heat source (often ball lightning – a strange but not unknown meteorological condition) to make it work.
The problem is that as far as we know, ball lightning doesn’t tend to manifest in our living rooms and bedrooms and thus, it’s very unlikely that it’s randomly setting fire to people.
Yet, the results of SHC have been observed since the 18th century and appear to be continuing today. So, what is going on? Well, it’s probably something known as the “wick effect” (see “Is Body Fat Flammable for an explanation).
If you are interested in the SHC phenomenon, watch this video:
Skin is not particularly flammable, but this does not mean that a.) skin doesn’t burn (it just takes a little longer than say, paper, to catch fire and b.) that it can’t be made flammable.
In fact, fire services began to warn consumers in the December of 2018, that the emollient creams, lotions, and ointments which are so popular among skincare consumers – could be flammable and if you stray too close to a candle when covered in them, you could catch fire.
The one thing that is especially flammable inside the human body is our body fat.
Like animal fats and vegetable fats, these fats are essentially flammable oil, and yes, if they are exposed to heat for a long enough period of time, they should both catch fire and continue to burn without much impediment.
This is where the “wick effect” comes from.
In cases of SHC, the theory is that the victims (who are almost always elderly, obese smokers) fall asleep with a cigarette in hand. The cigarette lands on their clothing and burns their skin, releasing body fat, the fat is drawn out into the cloth and catches fire rather like a candle wick does.
But, because of the way that this burns, eventually, the wick runs out of fat and then the moisture in the body extinguishes the last of the flame. This moisture then evaporates when the body is laying undiscovered leaving a dry pile of ash.
It also explains why many cases of SHC tend not to affect the feet – there’s very little fat in them to burn. This is also true of hands but they are likely to rest on a fat-filled abdomen and burn up in cases of SHC.
Yes, it’s considered to be “marginally flammable”, but once it catches fire, it burns incredibly well and if there’s a decent presence of oxygen in the air, it will burn until extinguished.
Typically burned hair has a frizzy surface to it. The smell of burning hair is particularly unpleasant.
However, if you get the heat up high enough they will burn as well as any other part of the body does.
Firefighting: What does a burning body smell like? As you can see, human bodies have a very complex odor built from many different component parts. Much depends on the age of the body as well as which parts of the body have burned. The smell of burning hair is particularly noxious.
However, there’s no doubt that anyone, who smells are burned or burning the human body, will never forget that smell. It is incredibly distinctive, and it can take days for you to get it out of your memory and nasal passages. It’s not something anyone wants to smell.