Monday, June 19, 2017

It's of Grave Concern! Helping your Heroine Escape if Buried Alive.

ThrillWriting welcomes guest blogger Sue Colleta!

Welcome back, Sue. Please, dig in.

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 baron stretch of road that’s rarely travelled.

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 questions 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 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.

It’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 Body

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.

Check 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!


Do you love fast-paced serial killer thrillers? WINGS OF MAYHEM will keep your heart racing and flipping pages, the storyline impossible to forget. Shawnee Daniels -- forensic hacker for the police by day, cat burglar by night -- ignites the hellfire fury of a serial killer when she unknowingly steals his trophy box. Described by readers as SILENCE OF THE LAMBS meets THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, WINGS OF MAYHEM is a whirlwind of heart-thumping, non-stop action that takes your breath away. Impossible to put down. Shawnee Daniels breaks into the home of Jack Delsin, a white-collar criminal accused of embezzling money from his employees' retirement fund. In Robin Hood-esque fashion, her intention is to return their hard-earned cash, but she stumbles across a shocking spectacle. Jack has secrets, evil secrets, secrets worth killing over. A deadly game of cat-and-mouse torpedoes Shawnee's life. Can she outrun the killer, prove she's innocent of murder after Jack sets her up to take the fall, and protect those she loves before he strikes again?


BLESSED MAYHEM, Book 2, releases early summer 2017.

Thanks Sue! And thank you for stopping by. I hope you have a good book in your hand and smile on your face.

This topic comes up in a new snarky mystery book written by Quinn&Glasneck - If You See Kay, Hide - September 2017!


  1. Thank you, Fiona! It's always a pleasure to appear on ThrillWriting.

  2. This is a great post, Sue (and Fiona)! Thinking back to your "stuffed in an oil barrel" practice, I wonder if you ever had someone bury you alive to see how it felt. And I popped back over to the badass post--more great info!

    1. Actually, I did ask my husband to bury me in the backyard to "test my research," but he declined. That's an understatement. I think his exact words were, "Are you insane?" The neighbors, however, were all too eager to lend a hand. Sadly, my husband put a stop to that too. I guess he wants me to stick around a while. ;-)