If you’re preparing to bury a loved one, or if you’re just curious about the burial process, you might be wondering how exactly a casket is lowered into the ground. After all, the average casket weighs between 150 and 200 pounds. Add the weight of the body inside, and you’ve got a load that’s not so easy to maneuver.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Steps for Lowering Caskets in the Ground
- What Happens to the Casket After It’s Lowered Into the Ground?
To accomplish the feat of lowering a casket into the ground without damaging it or disrupting the body inside, gravediggers use specialized equipment. The aptly named “casket-lowering device” supports the weight of the casket and allows it to glide gently down into the grave.
Below, we’ll look at how cemetery professionals lower caskets into the ground using a casket-lowering device. We’ll also fill you in on what happens before and after the casket-lowering process.
Steps for Lowering Caskets in the Ground
If you’re planning to attend a graveside service, you might want to know what’s going to happen. And even if you’re not preparing for a funeral, you may just want to know how the process works. Either way, it’s best to look at the procedure of casket-lowering step by step.
1. Preparing the grave
Before a casket can reach its final destination in the earth, a gravedigger has to prepare a suitable grave. So what exactly is a suitable grave?
The correct way to prepare a burial plot actually depends on its location. There are no standards for grave depth and size according to US law, so each state is free to set its own regulations.
Contrary to the idiom, “six feet under,” many states only require that the top of the casket be at least three feet below ground level. And that means the overall depth of the grave varies based on the height of the casket itself.
If you’re interested, you can read more about the term “six feet under” and whether it really applies in the US today here.
2. Installing the burial vault
Another preparatory step for lowering a casket into the ground is often installing the grave liner or burial vault. What is a burial vault?
Most burial vaults or grave liners today are made out of concrete. They consist of two parts: a rectangular container and a lid. The vault sits snugly inside the grave, and the casket goes in the vault. Once the casket is in place, the lid of the vault goes on top.
An alternate process involves placing the casket in the vault above ground and then lowering the vault and casket together into the earth.
The purpose of a vault is to keep caskets from moving around underground (either sinking or rising to the top). They also help keep animals out of the casket and away from the remains. Additionally, vaults are useful in preventing the transmission of highly contagious pathogens.
Many cemeteries require grave vaults or liners, and they have the right to do so. But many people prefer burial without a vault (as in the case of religious burials or green burials), so they may choose a cemetery without a vault requirement.
Tip: If you opt for a "green" cemetery without a vault requirement, you have more options for your burial container. Instead of a traditional hardwood or metal casket, you could choose an eco-friendly wicker casket, or even a simple burial shroud.
3. Arranging the casket-lowering device
When the plot is ready, the funeral home staff sets up the casket-lowering device. They make sure to do this before the family arrives for the graveside service if there is one.
Even if you’re not holding a graveside service, the funerary staff will still use a casket-lowering device to place the casket underground. But it might not look as decorative or ceremonial as it would if the family was in attendance.
Devices vary in design and complexity, but the basic setup and concept are much the same. Here are the basic components of a casket-lowering device:
- Perimeter base. The rectangular base of a casket-lowering device wraps around the perimeter of the burial plot, on top of the ground. It’s adjustable, so it can fit plots that are longer or wider. It’s held in place by its own weight or secured by other means.
- Supports. Once the base is in place, the funeral staff secures a set of straps or cables across the plot, width-wise. The straps must be placed precisely based on the type of casket and the size of casket they’ll support.
- Spools and gears. The device also includes multiple sets of gears, as well as spools for the cables to wrap around. The gears usually sit within housings at the four corners of the device. The spools may be a simple set of bars on either side of the base, or they may also be placed at the four corners.
- Locking mechanisms. Once the straps are in place, the gears are locked so the casket can be placed on top. When it’s time to lower the casket, the funerary staff unlocks the gears, which then slowly lower the casket into the earth.
- Decorative elements. Often, the staff places turf or felt grass over the top of the base to cover up the cold and mechanical side of things. The visible portions of the device, including the four corners and the bars along the side, may have curtains hanging down for an added touch.
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4. Placing the casket on the device
If there’s a graveside service, the pallbearers usually carry the casket to the plot. Otherwise, the mortician and cemetery staff might perform this step.
They align the casket precisely with the plot and place it onto the straps. The straps remain taut and hold the casket suspended over the grave.
5. Lowering the casket
Finally, it’s time for the casket to descend into the ground. A funerary staff member presses a button or operates a lever to release the internal gears of the device.
Slowly, the spools on the sides of the device turn, loosening the straps and allowing the casket to drop at a controlled rate.
6. Removing the straps
Once the casket is in the ground, the staff must remove the device. The family often leaves before this takes place.
The first step is removing the straps, which now sit underneath the casket. This presents a practical problem: how do you pull the straps out from underneath such a heavy container?
Often, funeral homes ask the cemetery to create a narrow mound or ridge of soil at the bottom of the grave or vault. This elevates the center of the casket, making it easier to remove the straps, which sit towards the ends.
Some grave vaults even feature a set of “bumpers” that keep the casket slightly elevated off the bottom of the vault for this purpose.
7. Breaking down the device.
Once the straps are out of the grave, the funeral home staff can take the rest of the device apart, in the opposite order they put it together. The device often telescopes together to make it easier to transport.
What Happens to the Casket After It’s Lowered Into the Ground?
After the casket is lowered into the ground, the cemetery or funerary staff puts the top of the vault in place. They may do so using the same casket-lowering device or a similar mechanism.
If the family chose a grave liner instead of a vault, the sides of the liner are lowered into place after the casket is in the ground. The top is then put in place to cover the casket.
Finally, the cemetery fills in the grave with soil and plants grass turf on top to close the grave.
Attending a Graveside Service
Seeing a casket lowered into the ground for the first time may seem scary at first. You’re witnessing your loved one’s final moments above ground and saying goodbye to them in a definitive way.
But attending the graveside service can also bring peace and closure when you’re in mourning. It can be comforting to see where your loved one lies and know that they’re there when you want to visit them.
It’s important to keep in mind, too, that lowering the casket is part of a greater process known as a traditional burial. If you choose another kind of interment, like natural burial, the process might differ quite a bit.