Why are graves “six feet deep”? Who decided that?
Well, the simple answer: it started with the plague. The beginnings of the phrase “6 feet under” came from an outbreak of the plague in 1665 England. As the plague devastatingly swept across the country, London’s mayor at the time decreed precisely what was to be done with all the bodies left in the disease’s wake, in order to avoid further infections. Among the specifications he laid out was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”
Over time, though, that law fell out of favor both at home in England & across the pond in the American colonies. Burial laws nowadays differ from state to state, but many states only require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of a casket or vault. For a body not enclosed in anything, the required depth is at least 2 feet of soil. So, with 18-inches of dirt as a buffer, combined with the height of the average casket (around 30 inches), a grave as shallow as 4 feet is technically fine.
A burial today involves filling a body with chemical preservatives, sealing it inside a sturdy metal casket, then enclosing that casket within a steel or cement burial vault. It’s a much less hospitable environment for microbes now than old graves once were. For non-typical burials (where a body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, the casket is wood instead of metal, or there’s no casket whatsoever), the less strict burial standards still provide a measure of safety & comfort. Without any protection, though, after a few years of soil erosion the remains of a departed loved one could unexpectedly (and problematically) resurface. You don’t want those remains getting too close to still-living humans, since they could likely spread disease (and, not to mention, scare the living daylights out of you).
How human remains are currently processed after having “shuffled off its mortal coil” is currently safe & prudent. And, as you now know, there’s good reason behind why the final resting places of the dearly departed are where they are.
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