Why are graves usually dug six feet deep? A sarcastic answer is all the lyrics, poems, TV shows and book titles would need revising if gravediggers started laying caskets only four-feet under.
But are modern graves really dug six feet deep? If so, why? If graves aren’t that deep, then how did six feet get buried into our cultural lexicon?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- History of Six Feet Deep Graves
- What Are Current Grave Depth Regulations?
- Why Does Grave Depth Matter?
Let’s learn about the tradition of burying the dead six feet deep. After, you can also read about why we bury the dead in the first place and the differences between an open or closed casket for our loved one’s funeral.
But for now, let’s learn why we refer to the dead as being “six feet under.”
History of Six Feet Deep Graves
There are many theories about how the term “six feet deep” came to be. Some of the guesses derive from common sense. Other theories are based on the etymology of the phrase. Here are some of the most common assumptions.
London plague theory
Most sources say that the origin of the term came from 17th century London. During a plague that struck the city, the Lord Mayor of London sent out a decree that all of the city’s deceased be buried at least six feet deep. This was done so with the hope of curtailing the spread of the disease.
While the London mayor should have been given a pat on the back for attempting to stop the plague, he didn’t realize that disease travels from person to person in a variety of methods, such as by fleas and rats.
Digging animal theory
An obvious explanation for burying a dead body deep in the ground is to reduce the likelihood of the body being dug up by an animal. This theory is based on logic, but there is no specific reason why one would choose to bury remains exactly six feet deep.
Some say that six feet is deep enough that animals wouldn’t be able to smell decomposing remains. Other tests have shown that dogs can smell as deep as six times that depth.
Another common sense theory is that when graves were dug by hand, a man wouldn’t be able to get out of enclosures that were deeper than six feet.
Any deeper may also be more likely to collapse, leaving the gravedigger underneath a mound of dirt.
Grave robber theory
Grave robbery has been a problem across cultures for centuries. Robbers sought Egyptian tombs for the treasures within the pyramids. European grave robbers took the metal from coffins and sold the bodies to students for study. Chinese grave robbers removed jade burial suits from corpses.
The deeper a body is buried, the more time a grave robber would need to extract the body and remove the treasure. The longer it takes for a grave robber to complete his work increases the likelihood that he would be caught.
Before each acre of the United States was sectioned off and assigned ownership, early native people and settlers would have buried their dead near the place of death. Survivors would have done everything in their power to assure that the remains of their kin were left alone.
Not only would they have placed the body in a deep hole so animals would be less likely to disturb the grave, but they also would have been cognizant of farmers and other workers following behind and cultivating the soil. Since they didn’t want their dead bodies disturbed, they would have buried them deep enough not to be agitated.
The phrase “six feet under” may have started as an instruction for burial. Whether those original instructions came from the London Lord Mayor or not is up for debate. But at some time throughout the centuries, the phrase became connected with the idea of death.
Some idiom dictionaries say that the phrase wasn’t used as an idiom to mean “dead” until the mid-1920s. The phrase was used figuratively that decade in both a movie review and an article about the end of a baseball team.
What started out as instructions for burial evolved into an idiom describing death. The use of the phrase is so widespread today that most assume that laws state that bodies must be buried at that depth.
Is this true? Are today’s graves six feet deep?
The answer might surprise you.
What Are Current Grave Depth Regulations?
There is no standard depth that graves must be dug in the US. The regulations vary from state to state.
Here are some examples.
- New York: There is no requirement specifying the depth of a grave. Instead, citizens are instructed to check for local regulations. New York City’s rules state 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."
- Texas: Texas’s Health and Safety Code states that the casket must not be “less than two feet below the surface of the ground if the container is not made of an impermeable material; or less than 1-1/2 feet below the surface of the ground if the container is made of an impermeable material.” The code goes on to say that you may be able to bury a grave shallower with special permission from local officials.
- New Jersey: According to the New Jersey Health and Vital Statistics Law, “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.”
- Vermont: According to new Vermont laws, the “burial of a human body must be at least three and one-half feet deep, measured from the natural surface of the ground to the bottom of the outside coffin.”
Why Does Grave Depth Matter?
In fact, some people wish to be buried in a shallow grave because they want the decomposition of their bodies to benefit the surrounding trees and bushes.
If bodies are buried too deep, they may not decompose as quickly. An eco-friendly burial would be at the depth where there are the most active bacteria and insects in the soil.
As more research on grave depth is completed, expect to see more discussions of burial laws and grave depths across the country.
Understanding Grave Depths
As you consider your funeral wishes, research burial grave depths in your area. Even though most would think that the legal requirement is six-feet-deep, most areas permit much shallower graves.
Regardless if you choose to be buried or cremated, make your end-of-life desires known to your family. Tell them if you want an eco-friendly burial. Pick the music you want to have played at your services. Choose the dishes you want to be served at the repast for the funeral.
Finally, research the cost of burial plots in your area. You may want to ask how deep your body will be laid to rest while you are doing the research.
- Ammer, Christine. “Six Feet Under.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. 1997. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
- Baddour, Dylan. “Explained: What You Can and Can’t Do With Dead Texans.” Houston Chronicle. 7 September 2016. www.sec.state.vt.us/media/886632/digging-deep-2017.pdf
- “Cemetery FAQs.” Division of Cemeteries. N.d. www.sec.state.vt.us/media/886632/digging-deep-2017.pdf
- Condos, Jim. “Unearthing the Mysteries of Burial and Cemetery Law.” October 2017. www.sec.state.vt.us/media/886632/digging-deep-2017.pdf
- Hoffner, Ann. “What Does Grave Depth Matter for Green Burial.” Green Burial Naturally. 2 March 2017.