The 6 Foot Standard Depth For Graves Has Its Origins In A Europe Gripped By The Black Death

You've heard the phrase "six feet under" enough times to know that whenever someone says it, they're referring to the eternal resting place of a dead person — the physical resting place, at least. Among many other funeral and burial customs we continue to practice, people have been consigning their deceased loved ones in pits of soil that reach no less than six feet beneath the surface of the earth for centuries.

Maybe you've surmised that graves are six feet deep to deter grave robbers from exhuming bodies and any valuable items that people may have been buried with. After all, six feet of closely packed dirt is a lot to sift through. While it certainly qualifies as a sensible explanation, it's unfortunately not the correct one. According to Mental Floss, the custom began back in 1665 when the Black Death was marauding its way through Europe and leaving countless innocents dead in its unforgiving wake. 

What was the Black Death?

The notorious Black Death was a catastrophic bubonic plague that started to spread massively across Europe and Asia in the middle of the 14th century. According to History, some 20 million people would perish within a span of only five years. The gradual onset of symptoms generally entailed massive black boils (hence the name) that would expel pus and blood, followed by fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, joint pain, and more unpleasantness, until the sickness became too much for the infected person to handle. Death was more or less inevitable.

While the most devastating outbreak of the Black Death happened in the mid-1300s, it periodically reappeared over subsequent centuries, as History reports. Around 300 years after its original surge across the Eastern hemisphere, it came back once again and took the city of London, England by pestilential storm (via Mental Floss). 

Dealing with the fatal results of plague

In 1665, the dreaded Black Death was back again and was wreaking havoc upon the populace of England. However, according to Mental Floss, the mayor of London decided to take combative efforts a step further — or rather, he "dug deeper" for a sensible solution. Ideally, if you're in the presence of some diabolical epidemic that refuses to relent, you should distance yourself from it.

The official "Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague" (posted at Bruce Sterling) was that all graves should be at least six feet deep so as to halt the spread of the plague after the victim had died (per Cemeteries & Crematoria Association of New South Wales, Australia). Despite the fact that it wasn't an actual law for very long, the practice never really died out and ultimately spread to other western nations. Hence, "six feet under" (per Mental Floss).

Of course, there are other theories about the six-feet rule's origins. One is that in the days before coffins were commonplace, six feet down made it less likely that the dearly beloved deceased would be excavated and ravaged by wild animals. Another is that the depth protected the dead from being accidentally disinterred should the ground ever be plowed (via Today I Found Out).