Why Are Graves Dug 6 Feet Deep?

The expression "6 feet under" is a common euphemism for death. It is based on the idea that the standard depth of a grave is 6 feet. But are all the graves in a cemetery really that deep?

A tombstone with roses on the top of it
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There are a lot of theories and explanations about the belief that graves are always 6 feet deep. Some are more plausible than others.

This article will discuss the possible origins of the "6 feet under" belief. It will also reveal whether modern graves really are 6 feet deep.

Why 6 Feet?

The idea that graves should always be 6 feet deep has been around for a long time. There is no agreement about where this idea came from. Here are a few theories about why people may have decided to bury their dead 6 feet deep.

The London Plague of 1665

In 1665, London officials issued a pamphlet they hoped would help stop an outbreak of the plague or Black Death. Some people think this was the origin of the 6-foot standard.

The pamphlet included a section titled "Burial of the Dead." This section contained the directive that "...all the Graves shall be at least 6 foot deep."

Unfortunately, the pamphlet didn't explain the reason for the 6-foot mandate. It's possible officials believed 6 feet of soil would keep animals from digging up corpses.

Londoners didn't know the plague was spread by fleas on rats, so they may have also thought deep burial would keep the disease from spreading.

There are a few reasons why this probably isn't the origin of the 6-foot standard.

Between 1665 and 1666, there were an estimated 100,000 plague victims. Many were buried in mass graves called "plague pits." These graves were sometimes 20 feet deep or more.

The orders also didn't say in force long. This is because the outbreak quieted in 1666 after the Great London Fire. It's not likely, then, that the "6-foot requirement" had enough time to become a tradition.

While it's possible that London's 1665 plague orders created the lasting impression that graves are always 6 feet deep, it's not likely.

Gravedigger Safety

Some people think 6 feet was just a matter of safety. Deeper graves might need bracing to prevent cave-ins. This would be especially true if the soil was sandy.

Average Gravedigger Height

The depth could have also made grave digging easier. At 6 feet, an average-sized gravedigger could still toss dirt out with a shovel. He could also get in and out without a ladder. 

To Prevent Disturbing the Corpse

Grave robbery or "body snatching" was a serious problem in the early 1800s. This was especially true in England and Scotland. 

Medical schools in these places needed bodies for anatomical study. Some people met the demand by digging up fresh corpses.

Cemeteries had a lot of ways to deter grave robbers, including:

  • Heavy stone slabs
  • Stone boxes
  • Locked above-ground vaults
  • Mortsafes, iron and stone devices used to protect graves

People may have also buried bodies 6 feet deep to help prevent theft.

There was also concern that animals might disturb graves. Burying a body 6 feet deep may have been a way to stop animals from smelling the decomposing bodies.

A body buried 6 feet deep would also be safe from accidental disturbances like plowing. 

Recap

The 6-foot rule might have just been a way to protect bodies. Deep burial is a practical way to deter grave robbers and animals.

To Prevent the Spread of Disease

People have not always understood how diseases spread. During disease outbreaks, they may have feared that bodies could transmit disease.

While it is true that some illnesses like cholera and tuberculosis can infect people who handle bodies, this is not true for other diseases like bubonic plague.

Still, this may be one of the reasons why people thought bodies should be buried 6 feet deep.

Folklore/Rule of Thumb

An old "rule of thumb" says graves should be as deep as the deceased is long. This rule of thumb has unknown origins.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the average male was 5.48 feet tall. It's possible, then, that 6 feet was just a good rule of thumb.

Are Graves Really 6 Feet Deep?

There is no nationwide rule that says graves must be 6 feet deep. Rules vary from state to state and city to city.

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 the body is in a concrete vault, it needs to be just two feet below ground.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, the top of a vault or grave liner has to be at least 1.5 feet below ground. When there is no vault or grave liner, there must be 2 feet between the top of the casket and the surface. Two feet is also the rule for "green" or natural burials, where there is no coffin.

There are no nationwide rules for the depth of gravesites in the United States. Instead, each state has its own rules. Sometimes states leave the matter up to cities, local municipalities, or even cemeteries.

For the most part, graves dug today are not 6 feet deep. For single gravesites, roughly 4 feet deep is closer to the norm.

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

Summary

It's not clear 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.

In the United States, there are no nationwide rules outlining how deep graves should be. States usually have their own rules. Generally speaking, most graves dug today are only about 4 feet deep.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why are graves dug 6 feet deep?

    They most often are not. The term "6 feet under" is a euphemism for being dead and buried. The term may date back to the London Plague of 1665, when the Lord Mayor of London ordered that all "graves shall be at least 6-foot deep" under the presumption that doing so would prevent the spread of disease.

  • How deep must graves be dug?

    In the United States, the laws regulating the depth of graves vary by state. In Texas, for example, graves must be deep enough so that the coffin is covered by two feet of soil. In New York, there must be at least three feet of soil. Many other states only require 18 inches of soil and sometimes less.

  • What do you call a person who digs graves?

    The traditional term is a "gravedigger," although the title is considered by many to be ghoulish. Today, these cemetery workers are often referred to as burial ground custodians.

  • Can you be buried on your own property?

    Technically, there are only three U.S. states that bar home burial: California, Indiana, and Washington. A few other states will only allow home burial if a funeral director is involved. The majority of states have no law forbidding home burial, but speak with your local authorities (including the health department and local funeral commission) to ensure you follow state laws governing all burials.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Word Health Organization. Risks posed by dead bodies after disasters.

  3. University of Oxford. Highs and lows of an Englishman’s average height over 2000 years.

  4. New York State Department of State, Division of Cemeteries. Cemetery FAQ's.

  5. 28 Pa. Code § 1.21. Depth of graves.

  6. Texas.gov. Health and Safety Code: Chapter 714. Miscellaneous provisions relating to cemeteries.

  7. Coeio. Burial laws by state.