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Say you see a fellow human walking on the street, nothing special, nothing new, but suddenly, BLAM, they're dead. You reasonably run away from the scene out of fear, but when you look back, the body starts turning into ashes in only a matter of seconds.

What conditions would be required to have the body become ashes upon death, is even such a thing possible?

Also, I originally thought that extreme heat could be the cause, but I’m thinking that’s only a contributor to why the body would turn to ash upon death

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe Thanos just clicked his fingers $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Feb 12 at 3:11
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    $\begingroup$ If this is a riddle then I know the answer! The person died in a fire! $\endgroup$ – doe Feb 12 at 3:18
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    $\begingroup$ A corpse that has died from dehydration is still at least 60% water. For a typical 180lb/80kg person, that means you need a mechanism to rapidly extract about 108lbs/50kg of water (13.5 gallons/50 liters) in order to make them ash instead of soup or mud. For your seemingly-healthy fellow in the street, even more. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Feb 12 at 3:41
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe this is what you're looking for. $\endgroup$ – Renan Feb 12 at 20:50
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So, the nice thing about ash is that it's mostly carbon. Carbon in its purest form (not bonded to anything) is either diamond (under high heat+pressure), but more likely some kind of coal. So the visual aspect of it could actually be taken care of.

Now what would actually disassemble you in such a way that you fall apart into ashes? I'll give you an idea that came out of an episode of Fringe and an idea that I came up with as well.

Fringe idea: so the Fringe episode you should read/watch is called Earthling. Without giving too much away, people who disintegrated had lower amounts of radiation in their body than normal. I wonder why... (no spoilers here). At any rate, it caused some people to randomly disintegrate without even noticing - to the best of our knowledge it was completely painless too.

My idea: So this is not going to be as cool-sounding but this does tie-in with the Fringe idea except the Fringe episode doesn't go far enough to actually explain any of the science (or maybe I just can't remember it). At any rate, things could fall apart at a intermolecular level if their IMF forces were disabled. There are 3 of them:

  • Hydrogen bonding (the strongest, formed by strong electronegativity differences between elements Fluorine, Oxygen, Hydrogen, and Nitrogen, aka FOHN)
  • Van der Waals forces (caused by valence electrons in the p-orbitals of between different compounds, creating momentary dipoles and therefore differences in electronegativity)
  • London Dispersion Forces (caused by momentary temporary dipoles - that used to be considered to be a kind of Van der Waals, this is the weakest force).

Now, the material part of a living organism on Earth is typically Carbon, and almost all carbon atoms in our body are bonded to Hydrogen, and most of the Hydrogen is bonded to Oxygen because water. Now, depending on how you want people to fall apart, you can pick and choose which forces you want to disable in a finite space. You want all water to just dismantle itself? Disable H-bonds. Want all non-polar compounds in your body to spill away? Disable London Dispersion forces. Want to get something in the middle? Van der Waals, but this would maybe look a bit messier.

To dismantle a person completely, maybe picking all of the above would work. Carbon in every temperature on Earth is a solid, while Hydrogen and Oxygen are almost always gases (except when they're vapour/water/ice). But one thing this wouldn't handle perfectly is energy - when bonds are broken, energy is released. Less so when it comes to IMFs, but still notable. On one hand, this could explain people turning to piles of black soot, but would also describe the smell created by rarer elements in our body like Nitrogen and Sulfur bonding with Hydrogen and Oxygen, creating funny odors.

Keep in mind, these IMF categories were invented by scientists to help us understand things - the principles that link them are integrated into the fabric our universe. Also, keep in mind that we don't know how to do this in real life - if we found an off-button for this it could have terrible consequences.

Please correct my Chemistry wherever I may be wrong. Hope this helps!

EDIT1: Just realized I forgot to overtly answer the question: no, this will not happen to you in real life. Extreme heat would result in combustion - the person would get cooked in front of you, rather than turn to ash. And the extreme heat would have to be applied over time and in different intensities - one temperature for getting rid of all skin, then muscles/veins, melt and boil all the iron in your blood, then finally the calcium of your bones. It wouldn't be a clean process, but definitely more feasible then disabling a fundamental force of nature.

The processes I described would be more instant, and also completely impossible (thank goodness).

EDIT2: AlexP brought up an important point, and upon doing research, I was wrong. Ash is NOT mostly carbon - it's actually 25-45% Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3, I'm not mistaken) and often Calcium Phosphate (as pointed out by SRM). Soot - a byproduct of carbon combusting - is often released, so it could explain the dark discoloration of the remains of a human. But I was wrong about the carbon part - most carbon involved in combustion turns itself into CO2, CO, CH4, some other gas. That being said, most of this still checks out - eliminating IMFs could have this effect if it was something we knew how to do. That's the point I'd like the focus to be on.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Ash is [...] mostly carbon": that's unlike any kind of ash I have ever seen or read about. Can you provide a link to a credible source claiming that ash (or, possibly, some specific kind of ash) is "mostly carbon"? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 12 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ I made an edit - please let me know if you find any other inaccuracies. $\endgroup$ – cyber101 Feb 12 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP is right. Multiple sources I find say the carbon mostly leaves as CO2, whether burning wood or bodies. In human crematoriums, the most common substance I find listings for is burnt bone: calcium phosphate is top hit. Wood ash contains carbon only if it burns at low temperatures. $\endgroup$ – SRM Feb 12 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ I added an EDIT2 for this reason - please let me know if it is unsatisfactory. $\endgroup$ – cyber101 Feb 12 at 15:14
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Assuming we aren't talking about humans, but some sort of alien or cryptid humanoid, then I could imagine a creature whose cells are meta-stable while it is alive, and become unstable when it dies.

By meta-stable I mean that they are metabolically conditionally stable within a narrow range. For example, while their heart pumps blood around their systems, an enzyme is constantly fed to every cell that keeps its meta-stable. But, when the blood flow stops, the cells consume their allotment of enzyme and become unstable and start consuming themselves.

This closely resembles burning but could be endothermic and not exothermic since every cell would be primed to chemically consume itself into ash sans the constantly renewed enzyme.

And, maybe, to deal with the skeleton, the marrow of the body reacts with the calcium of the bones like Hydroflouric acid and breaks them down to an ashy like substance.

So no exothermic processes involved creating runaway combustion to gasify the body, just chemical processes that render the body to ash-like compounds.

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