I have been present at some exhumations for my job. One thing I was surprised at was how shallowly the coffins were under the surface of the ground. These were in ‘modern’ cemeteries.
6 feet deep is how deep they dig the hole.. the coffin is placed in that hole- the coffin being at around 2 feet- then there was a concrete vault (to keep from collapsing in future- required by some cemeteries). They are actually only about ‘3 feet under’ the surface.
Others have answered your question of why- but I wanted to clarify that they are not actually under 6 feet of earth.
Also, in the one exhumation I arrived at early, the headstone was facing differently than I expected. I thought you were standing over the body when facing the headstone.
The other exhumations I went to, already had the headstone moved by the time I got there, so that may have been a one off.
I went to one burial in London in 1988 when it was found that although payment had been taken for a 4 person grave, number 3 had taken up more than expected. So they ‘buried’ the last coffin about 4″ (100mm) deep! I queried it and was assured it was ok as they use a concrete topping and a “topper” (a pre-cast concrete cover with a decorative top plus small monument).
A body left on the surface uncovered can decompose very quickly( less than a week), but not as fast as it can if immersed in water. It’s dependent on oxygen and water content levels.
Buried, it will take considerably longer. Depth of burial has a direct correlation on decomposition time. The deeper the longer, in general, it takes.
What’s the importance of that? Time is only relevant to those still alive. People who loved the deceased person/pet like to remember them as they were when alive. So the tendency is to want to keep their loved ones bodies as ‘lifelike’ as possible, for as long as possible.
As to why six feet? It’s simply extremely difficult to make a hole that is deeper than that without special equipment.
Matter for local and or State law, plus cemetery regulations.
In Texas, there is no regulation about the bottom of the grave. But the top must be covered by 2 feet of soil. 1.5 feet if the coffin is enclosed in a metal or concrete vault.
This will give a total depth of around 5 feet. I have worked with a few small rural cemeteries that required 6 feet, but it has been very rare.
The reason for specifying the top covering rather than the bottom death is, I believe, for enforcement.
To check if a grave is dug 6 feet deep, the inspector needs to be there at the time. And of course a shoddy operation will do that ONE correctly, before going back to their slipshod ways.
But if the law says how much soil is over the top, all the inspector needs is a metal rod and a hammer. He can very easily drive that rod down until it touches something, then check the depth. Easy to check many random graves to see that the crew has been doing right.
Of course, laws in other places will likely differ. Texas is the only place I have worked, and the only state in which I have been licensed.
Certainly it had to have existed after the measurement of feet came into play, and is probably a British thing since the Romans used a different measuring stick. I believe Christians were of the opinion that burning was sacrilegious, since they believed people would need their bodies in the next life, and burning has connotations of hellfire.
And of course they had to respectfully dispose of the body somehow, otherwise they would have to watch their loved one’s body rot and be eaten, which sounds rather traumatic.
TL;DR: 6′ started with the plague in the 17th century London. Basically you don’t want soil erosion or scavengers exposing the graves. These days, as before, the actual depth varies.
Not sure, but I’m putting my view based on my conversation with old people from my village.
In the olden days, foxes were a major problem for corpses being buried. Foxes used to dig out the grave for eating corpse, seems to weird but true. They like rotten meat more. To avoid this problem, the practice of digging the deep pit came into picture. Even today, at many places it is common practice to bury the corpse with a thick layer of salt,which delays the decaying / rotting of meat , which also very uncomfortable taste for foxes.
Building of cement graves and all followed over the period of time
This of course didn’t slow down progression but you can’t blame people of that time for thinking the more distance you put the corpse, the less chance you have of catching the disease.
Because this was in the mid 1600s and Britain was beginning to hit it’s stride, populating new land masses and bringing their culture to conflict with others, it wouldn’t be a surprise if this became custom.
To my knowledge the six feet under standard started during the Black Plague in London. This way, according to authorities at the time, was a way to stop the spread of the disease. Today is a lot different. The last time I dug a grave it had to be at least 5 1/2 feet deep. Anything more we would have to shore the sides. Also when we place vaults we had to have at least 36 inches of soil on a grave. So sometimes depending on the grave we would have to dig six feet deep.
Burrowing animals can smell decaying human flesh at depths of less than six feet, and that also happens to be roughly the maximum depth a single person can dig a hole.
In response to other answers here – burrowing animals can dig more than 6 feet, but they would need a reason to do so. No smell at surface means no reason to dig. Decaying bodies were known to have disease – dead bodies of diseased people or animals were thrown into wells or over the walls in a siege since ancient times – but germ theory was not fully developed during the days of the Bubonic Plague.
A more important question would be to ask how deep are graves in cultures where burial takes place immediately after death – it takes time to dig a grave, or at least, to prepare one.
4 or 5 feet is the min depth to protect a body from animals digging it up, smell wafting up from the grave or infectious agents from potentially reaching the topsoil and infecting people. There’s an extra foot or two for a margin of safety. It’s not much more because digging a grave by hand is hard work. So you don’t dig any farther than you have too in order to give a decent burial. After a while it became a round number and tradition. Today with concrete and plastic liners in graves and the sealed caskets commonly used we could bury people in 3 or 4 feet of dirt but it’s tradition to use 6.
It’s an arbitrary number dating back to the 1600s and an outbreak of the Plague in London, you can find the first mention of “six feet deep” in “Orders conceived and published by the Lord Major and aldermen of the city of London, concerning the infection of the plague”. These days, there are places in the States and elsewhere that only require 18 inches of dirt atop the casket or vault, and many times that’s because of a high water table or bedrock very close to the surface.
Most animals won’t dig that deep, and the rotten smell of decomposition has more soil microbes to process it. Could be part of the same answer… the animals don’t dig because the smell is less enticing.
In cases of rustic burial like this, one might ask if it would be fair enough to feed the animals. Certainly not in a cemetery, but in a transient situation. The Old West or mass exodus, for instance. Those type graves are probably more shallow. Time and exhaustion could factor in. Some cultures let birds and jackals feast, or throw to sharks. But that’s a rare thing in the modern world!
In a chemical plant, if we dig anything over 6 feet we need to use special permits and procedures because any more then that present a danger to the workers. Digging more then 6 feet not only increases the probability of the ground caving in but it makes it harder for the workers to get out.
The tradition of graves being 6 feet deep began with the Black Plague in an attempt to keep the plague from spreading. Laws about how deep graves must be vary from state to state, but one reason to dig a grave deeply is to keep animals from digging up the body.
Unfortunately we can’t seem let go of foolish traditions when cremation actually makes a great alternative to burial. For those wishing to remember the deceased a snippet of hair with a picture on a small altar in the home works very well.
With cremation we don’t pollute or contaminate the land and the cost factor is miniscule by comparison.
Most cemeteries forgo the “6 feet under” rule in favor of creating a grave that allows for the depth of the burial vault plus about 1 foot of soil on top.
The bottom line, of course! the less time taken to dig a grave, the less money the cemetery must spend.
Gotta line them pockets!
It started as a way of keeping the plague from spreading.
1- If the buried person had any type of infection, it will be impossible for the virus to spread from the depth.
2- The harmful chemicals, which are formed by the decomposition of the human body, won’t be able to reach the soil or the roots of plants and trees nearby.
I didn’t know the answer, so looked it up.
Apparently, during the Plague in London, the Lord Mayor brought in some rules in order to try and limit the outbreak, which included that all graves must be buried a minimum of 6 feet deep. This was also designed to stop animals from digging up the remains.
6 feet is a general rule of thumb. You have to bury bodies pretty deep so that they aren’t dug up by grave robbers or wild animals. The phrase “6 feet under” has also been made into an idiom for death.
Freezing would push the coffin upwards.
The custom arose when graves were dug by hand. The grave diggers had to be able to get out of the hole!
Not everyone is buried six feet deep. Lawyers, for instance, are buried at twice that depth, twelve feet. Why? Because deep down, they’re good people.
I’m not sure about the rest of the world however in England that figure is chosen due to the deepest burrowing animal going down 5 feet and as such a body at 6 feet will be undisturbed.
Graves are dug 6 feet deep in the event someone is buried alive. The screams wouldn’t be heard and the person would suffocate quickly.