What does burning human flesh smell like?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 26 2007 6:33 PM

Bar-B-You

What's the smell of burning human flesh?

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Police in Houston said on Saturday that the remains of a woman who had been strangled by her ex-boyfriend may have been  burned over a barbecue on his balcony. * Neighbors said they noticed an awful, acrid odor coming from the grills for two days. What does burning human flesh smell like?

You'll know it when you smell it. Burning muscle tissue gives off an aroma similar to beef in a frying pan, and body fat smells like a side of fatty pork on the grill. But you probably won't mistake the scent of human remains for a cookout. That's because a whole body includes all sorts of parts that we'd rarely use for a regular barbecue. For example, cattle are bled after slaughter, and the beef and pork we eat contain few blood vessels. When a whole human body burns, all the iron-rich blood still inside can give the smell a coppery, metallic component. Full bodies also include internal organs, which rarely burn completely because of their high fluid content; they smell like burnt liver. Firefighters say that cerebrospinal fluid burns up in a musky, sweet perfume.

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Burning skin has a charcoallike smell, while setting hair on fire produces a sulfurous odor. This is because the keratin in our hair contains large amounts of cysteine, a sulfur-containing amino acid. * (Hooves and nails also contain keratin, which explains why real tortoise shells smell like hair when lit on fire.) The smell of burnt hair can cling to the nostrils for days.

The operators at crematoriums heat bodies to 1,750 degrees Fahrenheit for two to three hours; they liken the smell close-up to a burnt pork roast. Unless someone's standing at the door of the actual cremator, however, it's unlikely anyone will catch a whiff. Modern cremation systems feature smoke stacks and exhaust fans that remove almost all odor.

Decomposed bodies smell especially bad when they're set on fire. Bacteria inside the organs—starting with the intestines and the pancreas—reproduce and release methane byproducts, which give corpses their distinctive stench. Firefighters call these types of bodies "bloaters," as the decaying body grows swollen with foul-smelling gases; bloaters that catch fire release the noxious stink.

It's easier to recognize the smell than to describe it. Emergency workers and survivors of war atrocities say charred flesh simply smells like nothing else. The scent is nauseating and sweet, putrid and steaky, or something like leather being tanned over a flame. The smell can be so thick and rich that it's almost a taste. (Anthropologists and journalists have written about what it's like to eat human flesh.) J.D. Salinger, who helped liberate concentration camps in World War II, told his daughter, "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely. No matter how long you live."

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Elayne Pope of University of Arkansas.

Corrections, March 27, 2007: The article originally described cystine as a sulfurlike amino acid. Cysteine is a sulfur-containing amino acid, while cystine is a modification of cysteine. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The original version also said that police discovered the remains of the victim. No remains were found. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.

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