Sunday Magazine

How six feet, given in error, became standard grave depth

There has been a wide belief in Nigeria that the depth of a grave must be six feet, but Sunday Telegraph’s investigation to determine how the ‘six feet standard practice’ came about, revealed that the depth specification was given in error and followed by many in error, writes CHIJIOKE IREMEKA


Many are wondering how, and where six feet standard grave depth for human remains’ burial came to be. Scores of them believe it has something to do with tradition of the people or spiritual interpretation but Sunday Telegraph’s investigation tries to demystify this pre-historic practice among men.


Though some scriptural personalities traced the practice to the death and burial of Abraham in a six feet cave as was written by Moses in the Holy Bible, others feel it’s a practice they inherited from their forefathers, hence can’t trace its origin.


For the moment, those who spoke to Sunday Telegraph on this topic, including a native doctor, pastors, traditionalists, and imams among others, said they inherited the practice and will not link it to any tradition, religion or culture. They held that there is no standard for that, saying that a body can be buried in a grave deeper than six feet or shallower than six feet without any consequences as long as it does not smell.


The other school of thought claimed that the need for the six feet came into play to ensure that body robbers do not steal the corpse and sell it to medical schools, which were at the point purchasing bodies for cadavers. In a bid to decipher whether the six feet standard depth for grave is traditional with certain consequences should the depth is not achieved, a certain custodian of his people and culture, a native doctor, Adigo Nwonye, said the six feet has nothing to do with the spiritual matters or tradition of Igboland.


“Six feet standard grave depth is what we inherited from our forefathers and it does not mean that a body cannot be buried in a four feet grave. But what is important is to ensure that the body does not smell,” he said. He continued: “You can bury your dead in a grave deeper or shallower than six feet. Who says you can’t bury at 12 feet depth? Our tradition does not talk about that, rather it talks about where and how to bury the dead.


“When I talk about where and how to bury, I mean positioning the dead man’s legs outside and bringing the head inside as well as facing the East.” According to him, the reason for positioning his legs outside is to ensure that he is looking outside and not looking inside the house in a manner that a man sits in front of his house and looks outside without backing his house.


He noted that the corpse should be looking towards the East, the rising of the sun’s positioning. Corroborating him, Nwakonobi Samuel (Chinwata kwe aku) said the only reason for burying a man that deep is to ensure that it does not smell and cause environmental hazards.


He said that six feet is considered, especially with the soil texture, saying that areas with loose soil texture, requires six feet but where the soil is tight (red sand), six feet is not required. He said: “Five, even four feet will be fine where soil is tight as it will not allow any stench to come out. So, six feet is not a must, and where it’s not achieved, there is no problem about it.


“What matters is that it’s not unearthed    during farming or road construction to avoid littering of the environment with human remains. The health people were the ones that insisted on six feet standard depth. Of course, you can’t dig six feet in some parts of Lagos because of water.”


In this same manner, the General Overseer, Vision of God Bible Church, Festac, Rev Victor Obiora said the Christians took the depth from the Bible where Abraham was buried in a 6feet caved grave, saying that a corpse can be buried deeper or otherwise.


He said: “There is nothing special about the six feet depth of the grave. If you go to the cemeteries, you will discover that people are not buried up to six feet depth and this is why you see that some hoodlums go there and unearth corpses and take away the coffins and valuables in it, if any.”


On the other hand, Bolaji Akande brought some superstition in it, saying that when you bury a dead person beyond six feet, it becomes difficult for that man to reincarnate. “Shallower the grave, the easier access for the man to reincarnate and deeper the grave, the longer will it allow him to reincarnate, if he will reincarnate at all,” he said.


According to Muslim Funeral Services Limited, at Muslim cemeteries, there are, at least, two types of graves, Al-Shaqq and Al-Lahed. Al-Shaqq is to make a deep vertical hole in the ground while Al-Lahed is to make a deep vertical hole in the ground, then in the bottom make a side horizontal hole big enough to cover the whole body.


Also, in Islamic tradition, a grave is dug deep enough to totally hide the body of the deceased, in Brisbane about 1.7m deep. The grave should always be perpendicular (horizontal) to the direction of Qiblah. Both types are used, but it is preferable to use Al-Lahed if the land is solid. However, there may be some variation in different countries depending on local soil type and local conditions.


According to a grave digger, Johnson Ovie, other theories proposed as to how the ‘six feet deep’ idea came to be embedded in popular consciousness include that it started via the general rule of burying someone as deep as they were long. He noted that it has also been suggested that burying them at depths of six feet or more was necessary in rural areas due to the likelihood that if they were buried too shallowly, particularly in a tall coffin, they’d be accidentally dug back up again when fields were being ploughed.


Another common speculative theory, he said is that: “Six feet was largely thought to be just deep enough to prevent animals from digging up the body in a time before coffins were commonplace.”


Other myths associated with the six feet standard depth for grave remains indicate that grave robbery proved a serious problem in the early 1800s, particularly in England and Scotland.


Sunday Telegraph learnt that the medical schools at the time actually purchased cadavers for anatomical study and dissection, and some people supplied the demand by exhuming fresh corpses. It was learnt that while cemeteries resorted to many elaborate techniques to thwart grave robbing—including the use of heavy stone slabs, stone boxes, locked above-ground vaults, and mortsafes—it’s possible that burying a body at a depth of 6 feet was viewed as a theft deterrent.


In addition, many people commonly believed that burying bodies at greater depths, such as six feet, helped contain decomposition odors that might otherwise attract the unwanted attention of animals and prevent farmers from digging up bodies when plowing their fields in rural areas.


Nevertheless, there is a way in Sunday Telegraph’s research when referring to the need to ensure that disease do not spread across the city during the deadly disease of 1665 in England where medical practitioners mistakenly suggested that burying the victims of the plague in six-feet depth graves will reduce the spread of the plague.


Thus, it was gathered that London officials and medical practitioners in 1665 mistakenly thought that deceased plague victims spread the disease, among many other erroneous explanations, and that burying these bodies ‘6 feet under’ would help slow/stop the spread of the disease. However, the origins of ‘six feet under’ appeared to have come from a 1665 outbreak in England.


As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications – Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague —was that all the graves shall be at least six feet deep. The law eventually fell out of favour both in England and its colonies. Also, modern American burial laws vary

from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything. Sunday Telegraph learnt that given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket, which appears to be approximately 30 inches, a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.


It’s learnt that a typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be.


For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. It was gathered that without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.


According to James Crisman, it is a common misconception that graves must be dug to a depth of six feet (1.8 metres). This is reflected in the common euphemism for death as six feet under.


In fact, he noted, graves are rarely dug to this depth except when it is intended to later bury a further coffin or coffins on top of the first one, saying in such cases, more than six feet may be dug in order to provide the required depth of soil above the top coffin.


He said: “In the United States, there is no nationwide regulation of burial depth. Each local authority is free to determine its own rules. Requirements for depth can vary according to soil type and by method of burial.


“California, for instance, requires only 19 inches of soil above the top of the coffin, but more commonly 30 to 36 inches are required in other places. In some areas, such as central Appalachia, graves were indeed once dug to a depth of six feet to prevent the body being disturbed by burrowing animals.


“However, this was unnecessary once metal caskets and concrete vaults started to be used. In the United Kingdom, soil is required to be to a depth of three feet above the highest point of the coffin, unless the burial authority considers the soil to be suitable for a depth of only two feet.”


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