It’s the Year of our Lord 1665, plague is rampaging though London, and the Lord Mayor issues an order that all burials are to be six feet deep.
This was the famous “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague” that laid out a long list of restrictions on how people were to travel and behave during the plague.
It also details how burials of the dead were to be carried out – at sunrise or sunset, and while relatives could attend the burial, no friends or neigbours were allowed.
And the key sentence “that all the graves shall be at least six feet deep”
While the fact that the Lord Mayor issued the instruction is not in doubt, what is less understood is why the City of London decided that six feet under was the appropriate depth to go for.
Ever since Norman times, burials of the common person had tended to be quite shallow, typically bath shaped pits just large enough to accommodate the body, and with the churches earning a decent income from burials, plots were often reused many times, with the disinterred bones sometimes moved to an ossuary.
The sudden decision to go for a very deep grave could have been down to fears that shallow graves would let the plague spread through the air as the bodies decomposed. But even still – why specifically six feet under, as opposed to say “very deep”?
A number of theories exist, with the favourite being that this was around the deepest a grave could be dug without the soil collapsing, or that this was the deepest the average 6-foot tall person could dig and still cast soil out of the hole. However, with mass graves being dug for the very poor, the depths of these graves could be as much as 20 feet below ground level.
There was also an old tradition that burials may have been as deep as the dead person was tall – hence around 5.5 feet or thereabouts, but that may date from after the plague.
The sad fact is there there are many theories, but few facts.
The legal requirement for a six feet deep burial didn’t last long after the plague died out, probably for practical reasons, as a six foot deep hole is a lot of work to dig — and hence quite expensive.
It seems that shallower graves made a comeback for the poor, and more ornate tombs for the rich, but it was something else that was to see the deep burial return — the arrival of the body snatcher.
At a time when surgery was finally starting to make medical advances, but medical students were limited to studying only the corpses of criminals, there was a lucrative trade in digging up the dead and selling the cadavers.
The fear of such a thing was vastly greater than the reality of it, but nonetheless, burials started to go deeper once more, and although six feet under was never stated, it seemed to become a bit of a tradition once more.
So today we commonly assume that burials are six feet down.
Although there are regulations about where a grave can be dug – such as not being too close to water supplies or drains, there is no legally required depth for a grave in the UK. There is just a recommendation for a minimum of 1 metre of settled soil above the grave to prevent disturbance.
In fact, there can be a requirement for a shallow grave — if the water table is high, as there is a need for at least one metre of soil between the water table and the bottom of the grave. In fact, many graves today are dug far deeper than six feet, as coffins are often stacked sometimes three deep in a single plot to save space, or reuse a plot after a suitable period of time.
Many more people today will be cremated as opposed to buried, and there is government advice that at times of high death rates that cremation should be promoted as an alternative to burial simply to cope with numbers.
And there there is the rise of the green burial where people can be buried in a way that encourages decomposition into the soil for the benefit of the local plants.
However, there is one option to have a super shallow grave – and that is to donate your body to forensic science, and the body will be buried in the sort of shallow graves used by murderers, or not at all, so that science can study decomposition, and use that knowledge to help solve crimes in the future.
You wont be six feet deep, but your last act as a human would be a gift of science to future generations.