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Why are graves 6 feet deep?


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February 08, 2008 5:54PM

English law once required a burial depth of 6 feet to ensure the corpse didn't spread the plague to the living. Of course, this measure was ineffective as fleas infected with the plague probably spread the disease. Also, few diseases are contracted from contact with dead bodies. The same site gives a rather gruesome description of early cemeteries as being "littered with bones and bits of charnel." Furthermore, shallow graves allowed scavengers (presumably both human and animal) to easily dig up the remains -- which makes a 6-foot-deep burial seem like a decent idea.

A BBC site about the plague of 1665 summarizes the rules set by the Lord Mayor of London to limit the outbreak. They include the mandate that all graves should be at least 6 feet deep. Writer Daniel Defoe also quotes the Lord Mayor's rules in his work, A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe notes that the Lord Mayor's orders were published in June 1665. The accuracy of Defoe's account is suspect because Defoe was only 5 years old at the time of the plague. However, other sites reprint very similar accounts of the Lord Mayor's rules. Even if Defoe was incorrect, his writing may have helped popularize the idea of burial 6 feet down.

While "6 feet under" is common slang for "dead and buried," many corpses are no longer buried at that depth. British cemetery law changed sometime after 1665, and now burial requirements are much looser. Some U.K. towns and counties only require that a coffin be covered with a minimum 30 inches of soil. Many U.S. states don't seem to have a depth requirement for burials. In California, however, caskets must be covered by at least 18 inches of dirt and turf. But somehow "one-and-a-half feet under" doesn't sound quite as catchy as "six feet under."