Many of us are familiar with the critically-acclaimed HBO drama series, “Six Feet Under”, which focused on a fictional family-owned funeral home in Los Angeles. But even if you’ve never heard of the show, you probably correctly guessed from the title alone that it has something to do with death and burials.
The widely-held belief that all graves are dug six feet deep is deeply embedded in our culture. But is it true? Let’s get to the bottom of this right now.
Why do we bury our dead underground, anyway?
While the exact history behind why we started burying our dead in a 6 feet deep grave underground and how this custom began remains a mystery, there are many things we do know.
For one thing, there’s archaeological evidence that we have been burying our dead for at least 100,000 years.
Burial is considered by some anthropologists to be one of the earliest forms of religious ritual. As early as 4,000 BCE, the Scots and Irish began burying their dead in dolmens and cairns that were positioned in alignment with astrological events and features. It wasn’t until around 2,000 BCE that they began using wooden coffins as part of their internment ritual.
Other experts believe that ancient humans had more secular (and practical) reasons for laying the deceased to rest deep beneath the soil. For one, it kept scavengers and disease-spreading vermin away. It also helped stave off the unpleasant sights and odors associated with the natural decomposition process.
Although we’ll never know for sure the exact reason why we’ve been burying our dead since the dawn of civilization, one thing’s for sure — it’s a practice that is still very much alive and well today!
The origins “six feet under”
First things first: what does the figure of speech “six feet under” mean, and where did it come from?
Much like “kicked the bucket” and “pushing up the daisies”, “six feet under” is a poetic way of saying someone is dead and buried. Etymological dictionaries suggest that the phrase might have been a literal burial instruction. However, it only came into being as a euphemism for death as recently as the 20th century.
So that begs the question: why bury a person in a 6 feet deep grave, and not five feet under? Or 11 feet under? There are several theories out there that might give us the answers we’re looking for. Let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?
Six Theories Behind Six Feet Graves
1. The London Plague of 1665
The earliest recorded reference to a six-foot burial requirement occurred in the 17th century during the Great Plague of London. During the plague, John Lawrence, the Mayor of London, set out a decree in a pamphlet titled “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Major and Aldermen of the City of London Concerning the Infection of the Plague” that the bodies of plague victims be buried “at least six feet deep”. This was based on the false assumption that deceased plague victims were still vectors of the disease, and that burying their bodies six feet below the soil would prevent the plague from spreading further. (Little did they know, the actual vector was the fleas living on infected city rats.)
While it’s certainly possible that the Mayor of London’s emergency orders set the “standard” of six-foot graves, it’s unlikely. The truth is, there were probably very few adherents to this emergency order due to the sheer volume of deaths. To inter about 100,000 plague victims, officials had to resort to mass burials in so-called “plague pits” to keep up with demand.
2. Safety first
Although soil conditions around the world vary greatly, some experts theorize that a 6 feet deep grave is the maximum depth that a person can dig a grave safely without some sort of bracing, before the sides start caving in and collapsing. This is particularly true in sandy soil.
3. Average adult male height
This theory suggests that six feet is as deep as the average gravedigger can stand and still manage to heave dirt out of the gravesite using just his upper body strength and a shovel. Any deeper, and he would also require a ladder to get in and out again.
It’s also possible that “six feet under” was simply a long-forgotten rule of thumb that the deceased should be buried as deeply as they were long. Since the average male is about six feet tall, supposedly graves were dug six feet deep as standard practice.
4. Grave robber remedy
Grave robbery might be relatively rare today, but it was a serious problem all over the world for many centuries.
In Egypt, tombs were targeted by thieves looking to pillage precious treasures hidden away in the pyramids. In China, robbers frequently swiped traditional jade burial suits off the bodies of royalty. In Europe, grave robbers not only stripped the metal from coffins to sell, but they also sold the cadavers to medical students for anatomical study and dissection.
This practice was known as “body snatching”, and it was a serious problem in the early 19th century, especially in Scotland and England. Bodies were in such high demand in this underground trade between body snatchers and medical schools that cemeteries were forced to resort to increasingly creative theft-thwarting techniques.
Some of these included bell towers with hired night watchmen, locked above-ground vaults, mausoleums, stone boxes, and heavy slabs. They even used metal contraptions known as “mortsafes”, which were makeshift cages that protected coffins and their contents.
It goes without saying that the deeper a body was buried underground, the more difficult it would have been for grave robbers to reach. The harder they would have had to work, the longer the job would have taken, increasing the likelihood that they would have been caught.
A grave depth of at least six feet, or the height of a grown man, would be almost impossible for a single thief to exhume in a timely fashion before someone would, perhaps literally, sound the alarm.
5. Scavenger repellent
Humans must have found out pretty early on that burying remains deep under the dirt helped to suppress the odor of decomposition that would otherwise draw unwelcome animal attention. While this theory certainly makes sense, it still doesn’t explain the reasoning behind a depth of exactly six feet. (Some dogs can accurately detect a cadaver as deep as 15 feet below the ground!)
6. Plow prevention
Some believe that six feet is deep enough to prevent farmers from accidentally digging up remains of the deceased as they plowed their fields. Early settlers in the United States typically buried their dead near where they died, so they would have done whatever they could to ensure their kin remained perpetually undisturbed in their final resting place.
So, is it true that graves really are six feet deep?
Not necessarily, at least not in the United States. Believe it or not, there are no federally mandated requirements concerning grave depths. Each state determines the minimum and maximum depths of burial sites within its borders, or simply leaves it up to local municipalities or the cemeteries themselves to decide.
For that reason, most graves in the US are not six feet deep at all. Some states require only 18 inches of soil minimum on top of the casket!
Here are a few grave depth regulations in some of the US states that actually have them:
- New York: While there are no statewide grave-depth requirements, 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 three feet below the level of the ground. (Two feet in the case of a concrete vault).”
- Vermont: For burial in a natural burial ground, Vermont law states that “interment of any human body in the earth shall not be made unless the distance from the bottom of the outside coffin or body shall be at least three and one-half feet below the natural surface of the ground.” Pennsylvania: According to Pennsylvania code,”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.” For caskets without an outer case, the depth requirement increases to 2 feet (24 inches).
- New Jersey: Health and Vital Statistics Law states that “every dead body interred in any burial ground or cemetery in this state shall be buried so that the top of the outside coffin or box shall be at least four feet below the natural surface of the ground, and shall be immediately covered with at least four feet of earth, soil or sand.”
On top of that, some cemeteries offer double-depth burial spaces. In this type of interment, the first person is laid to rest at a deeper than normal depth — approximately seven or eight feet — and the second person is buried at a normal depth on top. Though this is more expensive, it allows more family members to be buried in the same area.
Bottom line: most graves in the US aren’t six feet deep, which means the figure of speech “six feet under” is exactly that — a figure of speech. Nothing more, nothing less.
This brings us to the next question…
Why does grave depth matter?
Graves must be dug at a depth that allows future burials to take place. In other words, not only do they need to be deep enough to accommodate the casket within the grave itself, but there must also be a sufficient amount of undisturbed earth between the casket and the ones beside it.
Cremation: a growing trend
What is cremation?
Cremation is the reduction of a deceased body back to its essential elements with intense heat — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Modern cremation as we know it began in the 19th century, and today it is more popular than traditional burial — but it wasn’t always that way. In 1960, cremation only accounted for only 4% of all body dispositions. That figure had slowly crept up to around 10% by 1980, but as recently as 2016, cremation accounted for over 50% for the first time. That figure is expected to rise to nearly 80% by 2035!
Why is cremation growing in popularity?
There are several reasons.
- It’s less expensive than a traditional burial because there is no need for a plot, headstone, toxic formaldehyde, or a pricey casket. All you need is an urn or some other vessel.
- It solves the issue of cemetery land use, which requires ever-increasing acreage to accommodate burials. Cremation takes up less “room” and leaves a smaller environmental footprint.
- It removes decomposition from the equation.
- It makes sense in an increasingly mobile society that people want to be able to “hold on” to the cremated remains of their loved ones no matter where they live, or to disperse them freely, rather than leaving them in a fixed resting place.
“Green” burials: on the rise
The trend of eco-friendly burials is also rapidly picking up pace. This burial method forgoes embalming, vaults, and other bells and whistles altogether to allow a body to benefit surrounding trees, plants, and wildlife as it returns to the soil.
If bodies are buried too deep underground, they don’t decompose as quickly. For this reason, the deceased might be placed in a shallower grave so that active bacteria and insects in the dirt can break down the remains efficiently, allowing nature to work its magic.
Many see green burials as a way to give back to the earth that nurtured them throughout their lives, and to keep “living” by rejoining the circle of life.
The next time you hear people talking about graves being 6 feet deep, you’ll know it’s only a figure of speech that has no basis on reality. But hey, you must admit “six feet under” does have a better ring to it than “3.7 feet under” or “46 inches under”.