Peter Hough

Peter Hough
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Friday, 30 September 2011

Spontaneous Human Combustion

I came back from France last Friday on the day that West Galway coroner Dr Ciaran McLoughlin ruled that Michael Faherty who had burned to ash had died by 'spontaneous human combustion'. What makes this doubly remarkable is that this is the first time that a coroner has publicly cited SHC as a cause of death.

Having written a book on the subject with Jenny Randles in the 1990s, reprinted as a paperback in 2007, I was contacted by the Daily Mail who wanted me to work with them on a feature. What followed was the inevitable phone calls, emails, discussions, drafts and re-drafts until the piece was finally published today.

Within the constraints of space I think the article is a good overview. I have no intentions of repeating it here - but there are one or two points I would like to enlarge upon.
As I discovered - even during cremation, bones remained,
which are then ground up in a cremulator (c. Peter Hough)
The 'wick' or 'candle effect' suggests that in a closed airtight room a body can smoulder over 16 hours or more until it is reduced to ash. This was first demonstrated in a QED documentary broadcast in 1989, and has since become the favourite weapon of the sceptics. A hallmark of classic SHC is that even bones are reduced to ash - something that  crematoria cannot achieve. Despite claims to the contrary, bones still remained in the pig used to demonstrate the theory.

We investigated QED and talked to several of the participants. Even the sceptics complained that the programme had been edited to make them appear more sceptical than they really were - and that the experiment  was only partially successful. We were also told that the producers 'had an agenda'. There was a follow-up programme some years later, and taken at face value, it too was persuasive. But I'm afraid QED had blotted it's copybook - and as we didn't investigate this one, it is hard to comment further.

I'm not saying that the candle effect doesn't have its place as a partial explanation in some instances, but it is wrong to claim it is a 'catch all' for so-called SHC deaths. There are too many incidents which didn't occur in a sealed room, where the time frame was minutes rather than hours and where the victim survived to tell the tale. Then there are the cases that go beyond 'mundane' SHC and step into the realms of the paranormal - challenging even an open-minded soul like me.

The cremated remains of Mr Flaherty was found near the fireplace - but it is unclear whether there was a lit fire or not. Coroner Dr McLoughlin would have thought very carefully before coming to his conclusion - indeed he carried out extensive research first. Perhaps different explanations are required for the gamut of mysterious fire deaths that we put under the umbrella of 'spontaneous human combustion'.