Immolation refers to deliberate causing of death by means of burning. Sometimes self-immolation is carried out as a means of sacrifice, although the method was predominantly used for carrying out executions since the early human history.

Usually the prisoner would be bound to a large wooden stake and fire would be lit up underneath them. If the fire was large, the condemned would often die by Carbon Monoxide poisoning, before being burnt alive. However, if the flame was small, the body would catch fire while the prisoner remained conscious and their flesh would burn for a period of time, until death occurred due to loss of blood, body fluids, thermal decomposition of vital body parts or heatstroke.
Image of an execution by burning, from page 528 of "L'Histoire d'Angleterre depuis les temps les plus reculés ... racontée à mes petits-enfants ... recueillie par Madame de Witt. ... Ouvrage illustré, etc", property of the British Library. 
During the process, the fire would first of all peel away the outer layer of human skin, i.e. the epidermis. After a few minutes, the thicker layer of the skin (aka the dermis) shrinks, splits open and fat begins leaking out. The fat can act as a fuel for the fire, thus sustaining the flame, which can continue burning for up to 7 hours, as long as there is sufficient "wick material", such as clothing or wood. Once fire reaches the muscles, they dry out and contract, which may cause limbs to move post-mortem. Meanwhile, the brain boils. In the end, usually only the skeleton remains, covered in a greasy residue. Clearly, if death does not occur due to shock and/or carbon monoxide poisoning, much pain is endured beforehand, which is likely difficult to imagine.

Nevertheless, some individuals decide to carry out the desperate act of self-immolation, even in the modern world. Until the 19th century, the practice of Sati, an act of burning carried out by widowed women on the funeral pyres of their husbands, was prevalent in India. It was based on a mythical account of a Hindu goddess named Sati, who set herself on fire after her father insulted her husband. In many cases the women would be forced to participate in the practice against their own will. Some Buddhist monks and nuns used to carry out the act of self-immolation due to certain interpretations of Buddhist texts, believing they were committing an act of self-sacrifice for the well-being of others given the specific circumstances at the time.
Self-immolation of a Buddhist monk in Vietnam, by Malcolm Browne for the Associated Press (1964).
Today, typical motives are political protests and personal despair, often caused by oppression or mental illness. In Afghanistan, self-immolation is often carried out by female victims of abuse within marriage. In most cases such women would be ignored by their societies despite attempts to speak out, thus being driven to the final act of despair. Meanwhile, in Tibet, the act tends to be carried out as a means of protest against Chinese occupation of the region, which is often believed to be a cause of disruption to the local culture. In Tunisia and other North-African countries self-immolation gets carried out as a means of protest against the local governments and regimes imposed by them.

As self-immolation is an extremely painful and drastically noticeable suicide method, in modern times it is therefore usually only carried out in cases of protests. Very often a single act of self-immolation may inspire many others to follow, as sympathy is a common reaction among onlookers, despite the initial horror. Hence, although the act is a very personal form of protest, it can have a significant impact on others and individual cases should be taken seriously.


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