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Harbeck, Michaela; Schleuder, Ramona; Schneider, Julius; Wiechmann, Ingrid; Schmahl, Wolfgang W.; Grupe, Gisela (2011): Research potential and limitations of trace analyses of cremated remains. In: Forensic Science International, Vol. 204, No. 1-3: pp. 191-200


Human cremation is a common funeral practice all over the world and willpresumably become an even more popular choice for interment in thefuture. Mainly for purposes of identification, there is presently agrowing need to perform trace analyses such as DNA or stable isotopeanalyses on human remains after cremation in order to clarify pendingquestions in civil or criminal court cases. The aim of this study was toexperimentally test the potential and limitations of DNA and stableisotope analyses when conducted on cremated remains.For this purpose, tibiae from modern cattle were experimentally crematedby incinerating the bones in increments of 100 degrees C until a maximumof 1000 degrees C was reached. In addition, cremated human remains werecollected from a modern crematory. The samples were investigated todetermine level of DNA preservation and stable isotope values (C and Nin collagen, C and O in the structural carbonate, and Sr in apatite).Furthermore, we assessed the integrity of microstructural organization,appearance under UV-light, collagen content, as well as the mineral andcrystalline organization. This was conducted in order to provide ageneral background with which to explain observed changes in the traceanalyses data sets. The goal is to develop an efficacious screeningmethod for determining at which degree of burning bone still retains itsoriginal biological signals. We found that stable isotope analysis ofthe tested light elements in bone is only possible up to a heat exposureof 300 degrees C while the isotopic signal from strontium remainsunaltered even in bones exposed to very high temperatures. DNA-analysesseem theoretically possible up to a heat exposure of 600 degrees C butcan not be advised in every case because of the increased risk ofcontamination. While the macroscopic colour and UV-fluorescence ofcremated bone give hints to temperature exposure of the bone’s outersurface, its histological appearance can be used as a reliable indicatorfor the assessment of the overall degree of burning.