View Full Version : Got any grave diggers?

10-24-2005, 09:45 PM
What a wonderful question!

I've got a character who's in need of digging something up. A coffin, to be more precise. The scene is set in winter, so I'm unsure of just how difficult this scenario might be. The weather is certainly cold, and it's been snowing for the past few nights. I'm wondering if, on average, the ground would actually be too frozen to dig? We're going with single manpower and a shovel. Would rain help soften the ground?

The point is to see if a body is actually in the coffin, so would it be possible to smell any decomposition after they start digging, or do coffins normally help safeguard that? The coffin's about eight months in the ground. I'm trying to decide if my characters actually need to open it up.

Edited for coherency

10-24-2005, 09:52 PM
Don't know if I can actually help, but I'll try. I know someone who digs graves (that even sounds horrible). I live in Maine where the winters are cold and no graves are dug then. As for digging one up in the winter, you would need something more than a shovel, probably a backhoe.

Hope I helped and good luck.

10-24-2005, 09:56 PM
You'd also need to know whether or not the coffin is in a vault. If it is, that brings up a whole new set of problems once your digger hits paydirt. :D

10-24-2005, 09:57 PM
Here they cover the ground with hay and oil. They let it burn to thaw the ground for at least 4-6 hrs. Then a back hoe. As a former electrican I can tell you that if the grounds is frozen even an electrical trencher can't get through.

10-24-2005, 10:14 PM
What a wonder question! I know of a man who could answer your questions, but I would not go within a million miles of him myself.

His name is Eric Matheeussen, and he lives in Antwerp, Belgium. He was certified insane, following his arrest and conviction for digging up dead children. Given that he did this over a period of about 20 years, I expect he could answer all your questions, When he became too old, he replaced this hobby by visiting mortuaries and taking photographs, the more gruesome the better.

Although insane, he was inexplicably never interned. He lives peaceably enough at his home in a mediaeval street, the Kammenstraat, in central Antwerp. Officially he runs a bric-a-brac shop. Opening times: between midnight and 3 am.

But it would have to be a personal visit, I am afraid. He does not have a telephone. But if you paid him an imprompt visit wth a colleague, you should be all right. He is not interested in the living, only the dead.

10-25-2005, 03:12 AM
I can safely say there is no vault! John - you're right. He probably could actually answer my question. By I'm going to go your way and keep my distance.

Tiaga, oil and hay just might be the solution. New problem: getting caught. Seems like fire would draw more attention than a shovel.

Speaking of shovel, my character will now be investing in a backhoe!

Thanks for all the help so far!

Edit: In case anyone is interested (http://www.nujournal.com/lifestyles/life061905.html)....

10-25-2005, 01:40 PM
John - you're right. He probably could actually answer my question. By I'm going to go your way and keep my distance.Pity. I would have accompanied you. I would love to speak to this guy, for several reasons, but the problem is I'm just yellow....

I've got another Belgian gravedigger for you, who is just as.. er.. colorful as Eric Mattheeussen. His name is Jacques Delbouille, and he lives in a small village on the French border. Like Mattheeussen, he has an IQ of at least 150. Unlike Mattheeussen, gravedigging is his chosen occupation, rather than an.. er... hobby. One advantage of Delbouille, over Mattheeussen, is that you can plough the depths of his knowledge on Google, because he posts in various newsgroups, and is not reluctant to describe his...er... findings. He posts on an enormous array of subjects, and displays an incredible level of erudition.

Like Mattheeussen, he is totally insane. Although he holds the record for the largest amount of a certain...er.. incriminating material (got to be careful what I say here) ever seized in Belgium, fifteen cubic metres of it, it wan't this that freaked out the police when they search his house. When the police seized this material they also found two child's coffins in the cellar. Fortunately they did not contain children, but two of his dogs.

In his postings, he moans a lot about being the only Hinchist (an obscure sect) in Belgium, and is strangely akin to Little Britain's Only Gay in The Village (only UK readers will understand this) when he discusses this.

10-25-2005, 03:34 PM
Katiemac - did you find the answers to your questions?

Where he's digging (Alaska vs. Virginia) matters. Here in NC it can get very cold in the winter but the ground doesn't usually freeze to the point that you can't dig.(Here in the Coastal Plain/Eastern Piedmont) Even in a particularly cold year, it takes a while for it to get that way. It might snow in November/December but the ground may not freeze hard until January. The soil gives up its warmth slowly.

The type of soil matters, too. Sandy soil might not freeze so hard it can't be dug (unless it's saturated from the rain and frozen) but clay soil will be harder to dig in any old time. How cold it is at that moment isn't as crucial as how long it's been cold up to that point. Hope that made sense . . . it's still early.
What I'm trying to say is the location of the story matters.

10-25-2005, 06:31 PM
Katiemac, besides the long-term weather being an issue, the state in which your character is digging matters.

Some states require either a vault or a grave liner into which the casket is placed. In states where there is no such law, individual cemeteries (sometimes nearly all of them) may require an "outer interment receptacle" of inorganic material specifically to keep the grave from collapsing as the casket and its contents, ah, return to Mother Earth in more basic forms. (When you visit an older cemetery with sunken spots, that's what's happened, usually. It's also caused headstone to tilt or even fall forward.)

If you happen to live where your book is set, a phone call or visit to a local funeral home seems wise. I imagine they'd love to talk to someone who wasn't bereaved, too, assuming they weren't busy. Plus they're not nearly as intimidating as some experts might be--their job includes putting people at ease during trying times.

Maryn, who is always taken aback when she sees the funeral home guy in jeans and a T-shirt at the library (he doesn't sleep in a black suit?)

10-25-2005, 08:45 PM
Another note - some coffins are sealed, which often results in much faster decomposition and a far worse smell. This article may be of interest:


ALso, if he's simply trying to verify that the corpse is present, rather than actually get it out, he might be better off renting a power auger than a backhoe. They're definitely cheaper, and probably easier to smuggle into a cemetary. I haven't checked how deep these can reach, though.

10-26-2005, 12:31 AM
The more questions answered, the more arise!

First off, when I read "backhoe," I was merely thinking "hoe," because I'm silly like that. Investing in a backhoe is simply not possible. For the most part, normal lawn tools will have to suffice. We're looking at a mock industrial revolution setup.

The time of year is early winter. The person they're digging up died in the spring. So, approximately 7-8 months have past and we'd be looking at October/November on a calendar. It's certainly not Alaska weather, and the climate is pretty average, aside from light snowfalls the past couple of nights. Like I mentioned, it's supposed to be raining in the grave scene ... so could that help soften the ground, especially if it's not completely frozen? I suppose he could start a fire over the ground, anyway, just to be safe ... but then, there's rain.

Gah. I need to think more. Who knew this would be so complicated? It's going to take a lot longer for him to dig than I estimated, so that's a complicating issue, too.

By the way, the article Matt founds says the following (some light disgust, read at your own risk, though I don't imagine you'd be reading this thread anyway), "Under the most favorable circumstances, a body after six months in the grave would simply be discolored and possibly covered with mold. If the body has had the misfortune to have been sealed in an airtight metal casket, though, anaerobic bacteria--that is, those that thrive in an airless environment--will have had a chance to get to work, and the body will have putrefied, meaning it will be partially liquefied. The smell in such cases is indescribable. Simple wooden caskets, believe it or not, often result in more gradual decomposition."

I can't tell by the wording if "in such cases" also refers to a body in the grave for six months AND ones that are putrefied, or just the putrefied ones in general. I also can't tell if that means the smell is apparent during digging, or just after opening. This is the closest answer I've found to the question, though.

... Kind of coffin? Simple, wooden casket. Higher line than pine, but nothing extraordinarily facy.

10-26-2005, 01:11 AM

According to the University of Minnesota - embalming has been around for a while. Embalming delays decay (and smell)


See if these tell you anything, Katiemac.

10-26-2005, 04:53 AM
Unique, thanks for keeping up with me on this issue!

The body wouldn't necessarily have been embalmed. At least, it's not a large enough detail to the point where it would be mentioned. In fact, it's probably in the story's best interested the body isn't embalmed.

However, it's good to know the type of caskets mentioned in those articles. Walnut. I think we're going with walnut. Details!

10-26-2005, 04:27 PM
You know how it is Katiemac -

The subject tickled my fancy so I started looking; discovered there was more to it than I had imagined and - ta da - I was hooked.

Let me know if you need any more digging done.....:ROFL: