Buried Alive: How To Escape Your Grave

Grave digging


Before we discuss how to escape your grave if you’re ever buried alive, let’s look at the history of grave-digging and what’s involved in burying the dead.

I receive so many cool articles and memes from friends on FB and through email. Keep ‘em coming! The other day, Margot Kinberg sent me the picture to the left. After painstakingly researching the alleged facts, I discovered the original source. However, I couldn’t find any supporting evidence to back up this claim, or any information contradicting it. Even though we may or may not use 462 muscles to dig a grave deep enough to cover our sinful deeds, this picture led me to several fascinating articles about grave digging. A huge thank you goes out to Margot for this one!

Grave-digging is an art, believe it or not. I know. This shocked me, too. There’s a specific procedure professional gravediggers use to ensure the most efficient way to bury the dead.

How To Dig a Grave

First, you need to scope out the perfect spot. This may sound easy enough, but if you’re burying a murder victim, you don’t want the body discovered. You also don’t want witnesses. Or maybe you do. Maybe that’s how your detective catches the break that blows his case wide-open.

In any case, let’s at least try to give the detective a run for his money. Shall we?

Some initial thoughts for locations are:

  • In the cemetery.
  • On your enemy’s property.
  • 100 miles from the abduction point.
  • In the forest.
  • On a barren stretch of road that’s rarely traveled.

You get the picture.

The reason you need to first find where you’ll be burying the body is so you can check what type of soil is there. Is it clay? Is it grass? Is it ledge? Answering these 2016-04-24 16.37.49questions will help you determine the right tools you’ll need and how much time is involved in digging the grave.

A Few Facts

A coffin has six sides, a top, and a bottom. A casket has four. Because this post refers to a makeshift coffin, that’s the term I’ll used. But I wanted to make you aware of the difference.





If you ask most people how deep to dig a grave, they’ll tell you 6 feet. Actually, that’s incorrect. The proper depth of a grave (in a cemetery) is only 4 – 5 feet.

Years ago, coffins were made of cheap wood. Basically, gravediggers buried wooden bubbles. After the body decomposed, they collapsed. Burying a coffin 6 feet under ensured it would create a sink hole.

Today, the body goes into an expensive casket — ranging in price from $800 – $4,000 — made from wood or steel. Some companies even offer a “vault” where the lining of the lid has the same tar that’s used to seal windshields in place. It’s extremely sticky and never dries. But what it does is seals the concrete, making it difficult to break through. Which causes problems if an exhumation is ever needed.

Regardless, when the gravedigger prepares your resting spot, he’ll line the hole with concrete. Believe it or not, the general “rule” is that a coffin/casket is covered by no less than 18 inches of dirt. Technically, you could bury a person in less than 2 feet of soil in many areas, if you discount the amount of the space displaced by the coffin. However, it’s standard practice to bury people deeper. As with most things, there are exceptions. For example, children are buried shallower than adults.

The location will often affect the depth. In areas prone to flooding or high water tables, bodies are typically buried shallower to avoid becoming waterlogged and even rocketing from the earth. Can you imagine? This is a real concern in New Orleans, where the water table is so high that they have to bury their dead above ground.

That said, modern graves are typically between 4’ to 5’ deep x 8’ long x 3’ wide. Double graves are the same in length and width, only they’re 7’ deep. A triple is 9’ deep. A double, I understand. Husband and wife often want to remain together for eternity. But why would you need a triple? Hmm …

Anyway, for our purpose, unless we’re writing about a gravedigger, we’re only concerned with hiding our murder victim. But digging the grave is done in the same way.

Burying a Body in Soft Soil with Grass

The first step is to remove the sod (grass, dirt, and grass-roots). Sod is strong. It holds together well, and we’ll need it to mask our gravesite. Start by using a shovel with a flat blade. Gravediggers often spray paint the desired shape of the grave beforehand, but we’re doing this on the down-low. Cut straight down, outlining your grave, then slice a line down the middle. Working from out to in, cut across to that middle line every 11 inches. What you’re left with are 16 pieces of sod.

Using that same flat-blade shovel, pry up the sod and shave off the bottom to make them flat. The thinner they are, the lighter they are. But make sure to keep about 5-6 inches of dirt. Place the pieces in a semi-circle on a tarp. Slide the tarp out of your way so you don’t toss dirt over the grass. We want the grass to match the surrounding area.

Don't have a good feeling about thisIt’s now time to dig.

Using a spade — hopefully not one newly purchased at Home Depot (be mindful of surveillance cameras!) — start digging. Toss the top 2 feet of soil into a wheel barrel so you can dispose of it elsewhere. This space should compensate for the body.

You want to work from one end to the other. Once you get a few feet down, it becomes more labor-intensive. Think about it. You’re standing in a hole 4 feet deep. Your boots are packing down that soil, making it even harder to dig. Then you’re throwing that shovelful of dirt up and over the sides. Perhaps this is where the 462 muscles come into play.

Once the hole is dug, you need to smooth the sides so the walls don’t cave in. If the soil is rocky and loose, or moist, this is a real concern. Shoring tools could be anything from 2×4’s or plywood to metal rods and planks. In a pinch, you could probably use the back of your spade. But why risk it? Be prepared. You’ve scoped out the area beforehand, so you’ve got the shoring tools handy.

What if the ground is frozen?

Digging a grave in the winter is much harder than digging in soft summer soil. The earth is frozen, which can damage tools that aren’t strong enough to absorb that kind of pressure.

First, you need to warm the ground. There are two ways to do this.


Grave digging tool manufacturers are developing new types of ground heating blankets all the time. They’re similar to the ones you and I are familiar with, but they’re waterproof. The heating element runs on 110 voltage, which could create a real problem if we’ve chosen a spot with no electricity. But I’m betting you could jury-rig the ends to work off a truck battery.

I asked my husband, and he agreed. Yes, you could in fact jury-rig the ends. All you’ll need is an AC/DC converter, which you can buy at any Home Depot or hardware store.


Bring plenty of firewood. You’re gonna need it. Build a campfire over the potential gravesite. You want to get the blaze good and hot, then let it burn all the way out. This takes several hours. Some say as many as twelve. Going this route you could also attract unwanted attention. Unless you want your detective to receive a call from someone reporting seeing flames where you buried the victim, we might have to pierce the frozen earth the old-fashioned way.


Depending on where you live, the ground could freeze anywhere from a few inches to a few feet down. It’s not easy work swinging a pick ax or chipping away the earth with a cordless hammer-drill, but by using this method you’ll have less of a chance of getting caught. No stupid killers, please!

Once you dig deep enough and hit softer soil, continue digging as described above.

How Long Does it Take to Dig a Grave?

In soft soil plan to spend a good 3 – 4 hours. In frozen ground it’ll take much longer. If you have an accomplice, you wouldn’t cut the time by much because only one of you can dig at a time. There isn’t enough room inside a grave for both of you to swing spades. Usually, with a partner, you’d take turns…one digging while the other rests.

Best to keep the old adage in mind before asking a friend to help. Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead.

After You Dump the BodyGrave Digging

Backfill the dirt into the grave. Remember, you want to work evenly, from one side to the other. When your victim is covered and your grave is full to the rim, pack the soil using the back of your spade and your boots, by stomping back and forth across the grave.

If you’ve chosen a gravesite with grass, take your pieces of sod and lay them neatly back in place, then jump in your truck and drive over the grave a few times. This will pack down the sod. Hang on. You’re not done. To make the grass match the surrounding area you’ll need to fluff it up with a small rake, combing the grass in the opposite direction. And voila! There’s no sign the ground has been disturbed.


Suppose someone buries you alive. I truly hope you never need this information for anything other than crime writing, but you never know. Let’s prepare ourselves just in case.

How To Escape Your Grave If Buried Alive

The fear of being buried alive is called taphophobia…interesting little tidbit I thought I’d share.

Let’s say you’re strolling through a dark parking lot, walking like victim and unprepared because you haven’t read Badass in Heels – Three Self-Defense Moves (sorry, I couldn’t resist). A stranger slaps a chloroform cloth over your nose and mouth, and you melt into his arms. When you wake you’re trapped inside a coffin, buried alive. Eeek!

First of all, don’t panic. Easier said than done, I know, but by panicking you’re wasting precious oxygen. You only have so much of it inside that coffin. As it is, you have about two hours max before you asphyxiate IF you don’t panic. And because you were unconscious, you have no way of knowing how long you’ve been trapped.

Try to relax your mind. The more relaxed you are, the more time you’ll have to escape and the better you’ll be able to focus.

Are you relaxed and thinking clearly? Great. Let’s get you out of there.

Grave diggingCheck your pockets to see if the stranger buried you with your cell phone. This may cause further distress if you can’t get a signal, but hey, it’s worth a shot. If you get through to the police, say as little as possible to tell them what’s happening and prove this isn’t a hoax, then stop talking to conserve oxygen. Leave the line open so they can ping your location.

While you’re waiting for help to arrive, practice meditation techniques. An easy way to relax your mind is to silently repeat your favorite verse or song over and over. Not out loud! Oxygen is the only thing keeping you alive. Treat it as a precious commodity. If you can’t get a signal, don’t dwell on it. You don’t have time for a pity party. Move on to the next step.

Because you’re probably inside a cheap wooden box or makeshift coffin, the walls should be caving in on you about now. This is a good thing. Drag your shirt over your head, but not totally off. Then knot the ends to seal it closed. Think of it as a makeshift bag over your head. The “bag” will help prevent you from breathing in dirt during your escape.

If your “coffin” hasn’t caved in, you’ll now want to kick a hole in it. The best place to concentrate your efforts is the middle of the top. By now, if it hasn’t caved in, it will certainly be bowing, making your job a lot easier. It’s best to keep your head and torso close to the opening so you don’t risk getting pinned inside.

If you hear dirt falling, this is a good thing. If you don’t, you’ll want to kick harder. You need out of that coffin! When you’ve breached the coffin, use your hands and legs to push the dirt toward the edges of the coffin. Fill as much empty space as possible by packing it down. Stay near that hole, though. That’s your ticket to freedom.

Once you’ve cleared the dirt out-of-the-way, raise your arms above your head (dive position) and try to stand. Which you should be able to do if you’ve removed enough dirt and packed it down to conserve space.

While rising out of the grave, try to swing one leg out, too. It’ll aid you in leveraging your body weight. If you’re short like me, this may require more effort on your part. When your head pops through the earth, you may now panic. Oxygen is no longer in short supply. I wouldn’t scream if I were you. The stranger could still be lurking nearby. But let’s not concentrate on him. Our only priority is getting you out of that grave. With all your might, worm your way out of the coffin and on to the ground above.

If once your head breaches the surface, your energy is depleted, then either get mad, really furious till adrenaline courses through your veins, or take a break. You’re living on borrowed time as it is. Good luck!

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About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. Sue’s short stories and flash fiction have appeared in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine and numerous anthologies, and her forensic articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly.

In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue’s the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project, and co-hosts the radio show “Partners in Crime” on Writestream Radio Network. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She’s also a proud member of the Kill Zone (see details in full bio — menu bar).


  1. I sort of think unattended bodies change form, many times into a kind of fetal position. And that it is hard to get the legs straight and the arms folded in front by a novice.

    I once had the strangest experience with a hunter. I go back and look every once and a while. He had been hunting on private land next to a national forest, he always left the remains of his doe next to this very old cemetery. He could go where he pleased back there.

    • You’re correct, Cindy. An unattended body can go into a pugilistic pose — flexed elbows and knees, fists clenched — due to the shrinkage of body tissue. Muscles also suffer dehydration, especially when exposed to heat. Straightening the limbs before rigor mortis passes would be very difficult, I imagine.

  2. Your imagination is epic,….this was totally spellbinding and so well written…loved the pic inserts….
    You are beyond awesome……..simply beyond.
    You are a phenomenon force in the world of crime writing, tis so clear to me.

  3. I got “goosebumps” just reading this gross procedure. I’m claustrophobic. I don’t think I’d make it out:) Great topic though. Frances
    Frances Dunn recently posted…FIVE THINGS MAMA NEVER TOLD YOU ABOUT BEING A WRITERMy Profile

    • It’s frightening to consider being trapped; you’re right, Frances. But sometimes, we surprise ourselves. Mothers have been known to lift cars to save their children. Fear is a great motivator. And who knows? One day maybe you’ll channel your claustrophobia into a scene like this that will scare us all half to death.

  4. OMG. I hope I never have to use that information (the grave escape (too bad Steve McQueen isn’t around to make that one 🙂 ). Reminded me of Girl Who Played with Fire (or was it the last one?) where Lisbeth managed to climb out of her grave. ‘Course, she was supposed to be dead when they buried her.
    JHolmes, author recently posted…The inside scoopMy Profile

    • I hope you never need this information, either, Julie. I didn’t finish that series. I’ve only seen The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Loved it, though.

  5. This is great stuff!!
    Traci Kenworth recently posted…Book Talk…5/6/16My Profile

  6. This article is so informative and puts me in a pensive mood. It reminded me of the movies Buried Alive 1 & 2. The responses to this post is interesting too.

  7. Thanks for the nightmares.

    Don’t think I won’t return the favor, lady. (Picture the scene: the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever on a repeating loop outside your writing office window . . . and you can’t tell where it’s coming from as it plays over and over and over again . . . )
    Joel D Canfield recently posted…Coffee is a wonderfully emotional smellMy Profile

  8. This is super creepy and I love it. I had chills and the hair standing up on the back of my neck. Thanks for the helpful tips….just in case. 🙂
    sherry fundin recently posted…Friday 56 #83 & BB #59 – Red Dragon by Thomas HarrisMy Profile

  9. OMG, that was incredible to read! I am still shaking. Definitely would have a panic attack. Thanks for the tips, Sue. Pray I never have to use them, great for a future book though!

  10. First of all, after reading what it entails, I think burying a body is probably far more trouble than its worth so I’d think of another means of disposal. Secondly, I was never afraid of being buried alive until I read this! What a horrible thing to have happen but I’m glad you told us how to get out. Of course, if it were to happen, I’d probably forget what you told us, and then have to google it. Laughing.
    Great inspiration though. Thanks Sue. 🙂
    Amy Valentini recently posted…Book Trailer for the ALL ACCESS Trilogy by Tina MrazikMy Profile

    • LOL Right? Maybe keep a copy on your phone…just in case. 🙂

      The #1 best way to dispose of a body, IMO, is to dissolve it in acid, then pour the liquid in the ocean. You might recall that method from 60 Ways to Murder Your Characters. Mwahahaha…

  11. God you come up with some creative posts, Sue. I’m not even going to ask what’s passed through your mind that’s not fit to print 😉

    This is some really interesting information. I always thought the “six-foot-under” was standard operating procedure – something to do with the frost line in cold climates. I also had no idea there was a difference between a coffin and a casket (Gotta get out more often).

    Now taphophobia is something I don’t even want to think about. I’m not phobic (snakes being the exception) but being buried alive freaks me right out. I’ll never get that scene from my mind in the movie Double Jeoprady where Ashley Judd is trapped in a casket in the New Orleans crypt. Freaked the bejesus outa me!
    Garry Rodgers recently posted…WAS MARILYN MONROE MURDERED?My Profile

    • OMG, Garry, that scene was really something. Ashley Judd is amazing, anyway. Loved that movie. And I’m with you. Snakes…no thank you. Caskets and coffins don’t scare me, per se, but I’d never want to wake up in one, either.
      Re: subject matter. You should see what I don’t post. LOL

  12. By the time I calm myself I’ll be a cadaver. I had panic & anxiety attacs.

    I think, I will do the buried after I took my meds.

    • The first line of your comment almost made me spit out my tea, Eve. “By the time I calm myself I’ll be a cadaver.” LOL It struck me so funny, because honestly, who could truly stay calm in that position? It wouldn’t be easy.

      Panic attacks are the worse. I’ve had a few and thought I was having a heart attack. My husband used to have them regularly (usually revolving around small spaces). So when he read this post, the color drained from his face.

  13. My older sister used to have nightmares about being buried alive. I used to go to bed at night plotting ways to do it. If only I’d known you then.

  14. Interesting stuff. All I could think of was the Kill Bill scene.
    craig recently posted…Let’s visit Ambeth, on Lisa Burton Radio #RRBCMy Profile

  15. Being buried alive has to be one of the scariest scenarios there is. I clung to every word of this post, Sue, especially the escape part. I felt like I was seeing it play out on a movie screen.

    Hopefully, I am NEVER EVER in that position, but I least now I know there’s a chance of a way out!
    Mae Clair recently posted…Cover Reveal: Till Life Do Us Part by Carmen Stefanescu #Paranormal #MysteryMy Profile

  16. First, thank you for the kind mention, Sue. And what a fantastic post! So informative! There really is a real-life way to dig a grave and get out of one, and the reality of it is so much more interesting than what you see on film (or sometimes, what you read). And as always, this is so useful for crime writers. Lots and lots of possibilities…
    Margot Kinberg recently posted…It’s Just Apartment House Rules*My Profile

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