Why Are We Buried Six Feet Under?

by M-Gillies

"All places are alike, and every earth is fit for burial." Christopher Marlowe

Some people might hear the words “Six Feet Under” and think of the death metal band from Tampa, Florida; others may become reminiscent of the successful HBO series by Allan Ball, but in the end, that idiom that has long been associated to death has been around for many years with its origins tracing as far back as the mid-1600s and re-emerging in the during the mid-1800s.

It was during the Great Plague of London, the last major epidemic to occur in the United Kingdom, where 20 percent of London’s population was succumbing to the disease known as the Bubonic plague. The death rate had reached a staggering 8,000 per week and helpless municipal authorities quickly began to abandon their quarantine measures of locking houses containing the dead. Businesses were closing as wealthy merchants and professionals fled the city leaving only a small number of clergymen, physicians and apothecaries to remain to tend to the poor. Among these few who had remained was the Lord Mayor of the city, Sir John Lawrence.

The insight of William Boghurst, a general practitioner who wrote about the account in his Loimographia attributed the plague’s causes to filth and squalor, inadequate disposal of sewage and poor nutrition among London’s impoverished residents. However, it was the fear that the bodies of the deceased buried within the properties of local parishes was a contributing factor to the rapid spread of the disease. Due in part to the shallow graves bodies were buried in, the Lord Mayor enacted a series of rules in regard to the plague to limit the outbreak, which included a mandate that all graves be buried a minimum of six feet deep in 1665.

However, this method was ineffective in reducing the transfer of the plague as it wasn’t the corpse that spread the plague to the living, but rather infected fleas who would carry the plague from person to person. Further, very few diseases are contracted from contact with dead bodies. Because knowledge of the plague was limited, after the plague had died out during the Great Fire of 1666, London’s Privy Council issued new Plague Orders, which banned the burial of future plague victims in parish churches and small churchyards. It also enforced the use of quicklime at designated burial sites and strictly prohibited the opening of graves less than one year after interment.

By the 19th century medical science and the popularity of anatomists had seen an increase in demand for the use of human cadavers in medical colleges for anatomical demonstrations. While bodies used were often executed criminals, or even on rare occasions, donated by relatives, the increasing demand was leading to a shortage of corpses. Then came the Resurrectionists; criminals who practiced in a new trade known as body snatching.

Grave robbing was a very lucrative business, with most grave robbers being able to dig up four corpses per night in a two hour period to sell to the pathology department. The reason this was so easy for them to do was because many bodies were buried only six inches below the surface. But as fear spread amongst locals over their bodies being exhumed and displayed in an anatomical theatre for dissection, relatives of the deceased began insisting that their loved ones be buried six feet deep (the same length as the average coffin) to prevent the exhumation of graves by body snatchers.

While the Bubonic plague and the Resurrectionists were responsible for the “six feet underburials, the idiom for “being dead and buriedonly came to use around the mid-19th century, tracing its origins to the nautical term “six deep” or “by the deep six”.

It was during this time, long before the use of sonar, that many ships would have employed on their crew a lead-man. It was the task of the lead-man to take soundings of the water’s depth using a weighted line marked in fathoms (a unit of six feet) known as a depth sounding line or lead line. For every fathom, the lead-man would announce “six deep” or “by the deep six” beneath the keel. Because six fathoms equalled 36 feet, it was generally held that anything that was jettisoned into six fathoms of water was unlikely to ever be seen again, hence the term “deep six” soon became synonymous with “to get rid of” something.

With death occurring at any given time, sailors who died at sea were given a sea burial often known as “given the deep six” much like how six feet under is known as “to be dead and buried”.

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