Can you get DNA from crematorium ashes?

What's left behind when a body is cremated?...
18 January 2021
Presented by Katie Haylor
Production by Katie Haylor.

DNA_HELIX

DNA helix

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Paul got in touch to ask: "I was wondering if it was possible to get DNA out of crematorium ashes. Could you get any information about the person such as weight or height, from their ashes?" Katie Haylor put the question to Charmaine Bale, from Anglia Ruskin University...

In this episode

CGI images of DNA double helix

00:00 - QotW: Can you get DNA out of crematorium ashes?

Can you learn information about the deceased by examining their ashes?

QotW: Can you get DNA out of crematorium ashes?

Katie Haylor got in touch with Charmaine Bale to find out the answer...

Katie - Well Paul, during cremation, the soft tissue of the deceased burns away due to the extremely high heat of the oven and the solid skeleton is desiccated, leaving only fragile bones. These are taken from the cremator and crunched up by a machine. It is this process of breaking the delicate bones up that creates ‘ashes’.

I spoke to Charmaine Bale, who has worked as a crime scene investigator, worked at a crematorium, and is currently lecturer in crime and investigative studies at Anglia Ruskin university.

Charmaine - DNA is damaged by high heats as this breaks the connecting strands of the molecule. If you’re trying to get DNA from a cremated skeleton, there’s a very slim chance of collecting enough remaining DNA. The bone would mainly be brittle calcium and have few places left to protect any tissue suitable for sampling.

As for height and weight - when the skeleton is still laying in the oven, then yes you can see the height of the person. People have different size bones so maybe mass could be estimated, but getting an accurate physical size would be tricky as all the muscle and fat will have burnt away.

Katie - Charmaine explained that an anatomist may be able to determine where the muscles had joined the bones and could possibly comment on someone’s build. However, once ground down, you could only really tell if the person was big or small by the amount of ashes left.

Charmaine - This is why it is very important for a crematorium to follow labelling procedures and ensure the name tag is followed from the coffin, through to the oven, to the ash collection area and then adhered to the ashes container.

Katie - Thank you Charmaine for uncovering the answer for us. Next week, we’re tackling Stephen’s stellar space question:

Stephen - Is it true, that if the mass of the Earth were greater it would render our chemical rockets incapable of reaching orbit and therefore make us a non space faring species with the same level of knowledge as our pre Sputnik society?

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