Research potential and limitations of trace analyses of cremated remains

Forensic Sci Int. 2011 Jan 30;204(1-3):191-200. doi: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2010.06.004. Epub 2010 Jul 6.


Human cremation is a common funeral practice all over the world and will presumably become an even more popular choice for interment in the future. Mainly for purposes of identification, there is presently a growing need to perform trace analyses such as DNA or stable isotope analyses on human remains after cremation in order to clarify pending questions in civil or criminal court cases. The aim of this study was to experimentally test the potential and limitations of DNA and stable isotope analyses when conducted on cremated remains. For this purpose, tibiae from modern cattle were experimentally cremated by incinerating the bones in increments of 100°C until a maximum of 1000°C was reached. In addition, cremated human remains were collected from a modern crematory. The samples were investigated to determine level of DNA preservation and stable isotope values (C and N in 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 and crystalline organization. This was conducted in order to provide a general background with which to explain observed changes in the trace analyses data sets. The goal is to develop an efficacious screening method for determining at which degree of burning bone still retains its original biological signals. We found that stable isotope analysis of the tested light elements in bone is only possible up to a heat exposure of 300°C while the isotopic signal from strontium remains unaltered even in bones exposed to very high temperatures. DNA-analyses seem theoretically possible up to a heat exposure of 600°C but can not be advised in every case because of the increased risk of contamination. While the macroscopic colour and UV-fluorescence of cremated bone give hints to temperature exposure of the bone's outer surface, its histological appearance can be used as a reliable indicator for the assessment of the overall degree of burning.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bone and Bones / chemistry*
  • Carbonates / analysis
  • Cattle
  • Collagen / analysis
  • Cremation*
  • DNA / analysis
  • Differential Thermal Analysis
  • Fluorescence
  • Forensic Anthropology
  • Humans
  • Isotopes / analysis
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Strontium / analysis
  • Temperature
  • Ultraviolet Rays
  • X-Ray Diffraction


  • Carbonates
  • Isotopes
  • Collagen
  • DNA
  • Strontium