Why Are Graves Dug 6 Feet Deep?

We've all heard of "6 feet under," but is this true of gravesites?

Gravedigger looking into gravesite
Many people believe it, but are graves always six feet deep?. Photo © Scott MacBride/Moment/Getty Images

The expression "6 feet under" is a common euphemism for death because of the notion that cemetery workers always dig gravesites to a standard depth of 6 feet (1.83 meters). This article answers the question of whether cemetery graves are really six feet deep, and explores the possible origins of this widespread belief.

Where Does "6 Feet Under" Come from?

Many theories and explanations exist about why people commonly assume graves are always 6 feet deep, but one idea surely wins the "Most Believable But Probably Not True" Award:

1. The London Plague of 1665

Many sources point to a series of orders issued in London to halt another outbreak of the plague or "Black Death" in 1665 to explain why we still use "6 feet under" today. The pamphlet, titled Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Major and Aldermen of the City of London Concerning the Infection of the Plague, includes a section titled "Burial of the Dead" containing this sentence: "...all the Graves shall be at least 6 foot deep."

Unfortunately, these "Orders" offer no explanation about why this particular depth was mandated, but it's possible that officials believed 6 feet of soil was sufficient to prevent animals from digging up corpses and/or would prevent the disease from spreading to the living. (Londoners still didn't realize that they had more to fear from the fleas living on the rats thriving in their filthy city streets and less to fear from plague victims.)

While it's possible that London's 1665 plague orders created the lasting impression that graves are always 6 feet deep, it's not likely. First, these orders weren't in force very long because the plague outbreak dissipated in 1666 after the Great London Fire. Moreover, in order to dispose of the estimated 100,000 victims who died from the plague in 1665-66, officials resorted to mass burials in dozens of "plague pits" throughout London, which could reach depths of 20 feet or more, just to keep up with the quantity of plague victims needing burial.

Thus, it's hardly likely that the "6-foot requirement" had enough time or adherents to become a tradition followed by later generations of gravediggers.

There are several other possible explanations for why we believe graves are dug 6 feet deep:

2. Safety

While soil conditions vary greatly around the world, some have suggested that, given the dimensions of the gravesite opening, 6 feet is the maximum depth someone can safely dig a grave before the sides start caving in without some form of bracing, particularly in sandy soil.

3. Average Gravedigger Height

Another explanation suggests that 6 feet was the maximum depth at which an average gravedigger could stand and still manage to toss dirt out of the grave using a shovel, or get in or out of the grave without needing a ladder.

4. To Prevent Disturbing the Corpse

Incredibly, grave robbery or "body snatching" proved a serious problem in the early 1800s — particularly in England and Scotland. Because medical schools at the time actually purchased cadavers for anatomical study and dissection, some people supplied the demand by exhuming fresh corpses.

While cemeteries resorted to many elaborate techniques to thwart grave robbing — including the use of heavy stone slabs, stone boxes, locked above-ground vaults, and mortsafes — it's possible that burying a body at a depth of 6 feet was viewed as a theft deterrent.

In addition, many people commonly believed that burying bodies at greater depths, such as 6 feet, helped contain decomposition odors that might otherwise attract the unwanted attention of animals.

Finally, some theorize that gravesites reaching 6 feet deep helped prevent farmers from digging up bodies when plowing their fields in rural areas.

5. To Prevent the Spread of Disease

As mentioned earlier, London officials and medical practitioners in 1665 mistakenly thought that deceased plague victims spread the disease (among many other erroneous explanations), and that burying these bodies "6 feet under" would help slow/stop the spread of the disease.

6. Folklore/Rule of Thumb

Finally, like so many superstitions surrounding death, there's an old "rule of thumb" of unknown origin stating that graves should be as deep as the deceased is long. Since the average male in the 17th and 18th centuries stood just 1.67 meters (5.48 feet) tall, it's possible that the 6-foot-deep adage proved a good rule of thumb when digging graves.

 

So, Are Graves Really 6 Feet Deep?

The title of the popular HBO television show Six Feet Under, which focused on the fictional Fisher family's funeral home in Los Angeles, California, drew upon the fact that most people think a grave is always dug 6 feet (1.8 meters) deep. In reality, there is no federally mandated requirement or nationwide standard concerning the depth of gravesites in the United States; instead, each individual state governs grave depths within its borders, or leaves the matter up to cities, local municipalities or even to the cemeteries.

While the state of New York, for example, lacks a statewide grave-depth requirement, New York City requires that "'when human remains are buried in the ground, without a concrete vault, the top of the coffin or casket shall be at least 3' below the level of the ground.' (two feet in the case of a concrete vault)."

In neighboring Pennsylvania, however, gravesite burials involving a concrete vault or graveliner must be deep enough so that the "distance from parts of the top of the outer case containing the casket may not be less than 1.5 feet (18 inches) from the natural surface of the ground." When a burial involves only the casket, or only the body of the deceased during a "green" or natural burial, then the gravesite must be dug deep enough so that "the distance from parts of the casket or body may be no less than 2 feet — 24 inches — from the natural surface of the ground."

In general, most graves dug today are not 6 feet deep. According to Nancy Faulk, director of Prairie Home Cemetery in Waukesha, Wisconsin, "Many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything)." She added that the crew at Prairie Home Cemetery uses "an approximate depth of 4 feet for traditional and natural burial."

The bottom line is that cemetery graves in the United States are not always 6 feet deep, and for single gravesites, roughly four feet (1.22 meters) deep is closer to the norm. That said, some cemeteries offer double- or even triple-depth plots, in which caskets are "stacked" vertically in the same gravesite. In these cases, a single gravesite might be dug approximately 7 to 12 feet (2.13 to 3.66 meters) deep.

Sources:
"Cemetery FAQs." [New York] Department of State, Division of Cemeteries. Retrieved April 1, 2016. http://www.dos.ny.gov/cmty/cemfaqs.html

"§ 1.21. Depth of graves." The Pennsylvania Code. Retrieved April 2, 2016. http://www.pacode.com/secure/data/028/chapter1/s1.21.html

Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Major and Aldermen of the City of London Concerning the Infection of the Plague, printed by James Flesher, 1665. Retrieved April 4, 2016. Author's collection.

"Men From Early Middle Ages Were Nearly as Tall as Modern People" by Holly Wagner. Ohio State University. Retrieved April 7, 2016. http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/medimen.htm

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