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Are Graves Really 6 Feet Deep?

Are Graves Really 6 Feet Deep?

The notion of graves being 6 feet deep is a deeply entrenched one in our collective consciousness, often evoked in literature, folklore, and casual conversation. This blog post explores the origins of this burial practice, its cultural significance, and how it has evolved through the centuries. Understanding this aspect of funerary customs offers insight into the broader context of funeral services, cemetery regulations, and cultural attitudes toward death and burial.

There is no nationwide rule that says graves must be 6 feet deep. Regulations on deep graves can vary from state to state and city to city. For the most part, graves dug today are not 6 feet deep.

The state of New York, for example, lacks a statewide grave-depth rule. New York City, though, requires at least 3 feet between the ground surface and the top of a casket or coffin. If a concrete vault is used, the depth can be as little as 2 feet below ground.

For single gravesites, roughly 4 feet deep is closer to the norm. The International Cemetery, Cremation & Funeral Association calls for grave widths of 2.5 feet (30 inches) and lengths of 8 feet, along with their best practices for how cemeteries should lay out graves.2

In neighboring Pennsylvania, the top of a vault or grave liner has to be at least 1.5 feet below ground. There must be 2 feet between the top of the casket and the surface when there is no vault or grave liner.3

In Texas, graves must be deep enough to cover the coffin by 2 feet of soil.4 Two feet is also the rule for "green" or natural burials, with no coffin.

An exception is double- or even triple-depth plots. In these plots, caskets are "stacked" vertically in the same gravesite. A single grave in these plots might be 7 to 12 feet deep.

Burial depth also may be determined by cultural or religious practice. Islam, for example, calls for a depth of at least half the average height of a man or more.5

The Plague and Public Health: Origins of “6 Feet Under”

Since ancient times, burial practices have varied based on geographical, cultural, and technological factors. Early graves were often shallow due to the limited tools available. However, the specific idea of graves being 6 feet deep has its roots in more recent history and is closely tied to Western practices.

John Dunstall's depiction of London during the plague of 1665. Facsimile reproduction from a pictorial broadside of 1665-6

One of the most compelling origins of the 6-foot-deep grave is linked to the Bubonic Plague that swept through London in the 17th century. In 1665, London was devastated by what is now known as the Great Plague, a deadly outbreak that claimed the lives of nearly a quarter of the city's population.

Amidst the chaos and fear, the Lord Mayor of London issued an edict that all plague victims' graves should be at least 6 feet deep. This decision was rooted in the belief that such depth would prevent the spread of the disease, which was thought to be air-borne. The city, already grappling with overcrowding and limited burial space, saw the creation of new, deeper mass graves known as "plague pits." These pits, sometimes deeper than 20 feet, became the final resting place for thousands of victims.

Other Considerations for 6-Foot Deep

  • Practical Considerations in Grave Digging: The practicality of grave depth has always been a crucial factor. A depth of 6 feet was seen as a balance between preventing animal scavenging and ensuring the safety of gravediggers. In softer soil types, deeper graves risked collapsing, posing a danger to those excavating them.
  • Deterrence of Grave Robbery: During the 18th and 19th centuries, the theft of bodies from graves was a significant issue, especially in Europe. This was driven by the demand for cadavers for anatomical study and medical research. Deeper graves were thought to be a deterrent against such thefts, reflecting the evolving challenges in the funeral and burial industry.
  • Cultural and Religious Influences: Cultural and religious beliefs have significantly influenced burial practices. Islamic traditions, for example, typically involve shallower graves, while some Christian denominations adopted the 6-foot standard, reflecting the diversity in death rituals.
  • Modern Burial Practices: Today, the depth of graves varies widely, influenced by environmental concerns, technological advancements in grave digging, and the rise of alternative burial practices like green burials. Cemetery management and state regulations play a pivotal role in determining these practices.
  • The Role of Urban Legends and Literature: The '6 feet under' concept has been perpetuated through literature and urban legends, becoming a metaphor for death. This widespread cultural representation has solidified its place in the public consciousness.

In the U.S., grave depth is governed by state and local laws. These regulations ensure that burial practices are respectful, safe, and environmentally responsible, adapting to contemporary needs and values.

It's unclear where the "6 feet under" idea came from. It might have been for the safety of the gravedigger, or to make grave digging easier. People may have also believed it would keep bodies from being disturbed or prevent the spread of disease. There are no federal laws In the United States that regulate how deep graves should be. Most states have their own rules. Generally speaking, most graves dug today are only about 4 feet deep.

The 6-foot-deep grave, originating from a mix of historical events, practical needs, and cultural influences, remains a powerful symbol in our understanding of death and burial. As burial practices continue to evolve, reflecting our values and technological capabilities, the insights from historical practices like those during the London Plague offer valuable lessons for the future of respectful, dignified, and sustainable burial methods.