Digging a Grave: The Criminal Perspective

Training Grave Site

Over the years I’ve dug my fair share of graves (for research of course) and I can tell you one thing unequivocally: it sucks. I suppose there are technically two broad categories of grave digging techniques. The first is mechanical which involves the use of mechanized heavy equipment like a backhoe or bobcat. These types of graves are not as common as you might imagine so I’ll discuss the other category; manual digging. Digging a grave by hand is very labor intensive. Actually, a killer may expend quite a bit of energy just getting the body to the grave site. Hauling a dead body over uneven ground can pose a lot of challenges and risks (stumbling, twisting an ankle, etc). Most of these activities are done at night which increases the risk of injury.

Once at the grave site the real fun begins.  One of the biggest factors affecting success is the soil type. Soil is composed of several horizons and the conditions a few feet down may be totally different from ground level.  Some areas are simply not good for grave digging because of a high water table or bedrock. I can just imagine the frustration some killer must feel when hitting bedrock 12″ down.  Assuming they can dig down to a respectable level like 3-4 feet there are other challenges as well.

Graves typically taper in towards the bottom. It’s difficult to keep the bottom of the grave as wide as the top of the grave. This means that the body won’t fit as well when it’s dumped in even if the opening looks big enough. Part of this relates to the way we dig, the other part is the collapse of dirt from the side walls. This is even more pronounced in sandy soils. So even if you dig three feet down the bottom of your hole may be so small that the body only fits two feet down. Also, if the grave length is too short then the head and or feet may have to be propped up on the ends making them even shallower (think of how a body sits in a bathtub).

An adult sized grave in clay soil can take 2-3 hours to dig (assuming you have a physically fit criminal) and when it’s over the criminal could be exhausted. In this state he’s more likely to make a mistake. One possible mistake is leaving behind something that may link him to the crime. Remember; it’s dark, he’s tired, maybe during the digging he took off a shirt or watch. Maybe he dropped a pocket knife or left the shovel behind. These items may also fall into the grave and get buried with the body without him realizing it.Chances of a mistake are magnified if he is startled by something. Seeing car headlights or hearing a dog barking might make them rush and in turn make a mistake.

One thing about filling the grave is that you can never get all of the dirt back in. This is due to the compaction of undisturbed soil. It has taken thousands of years to compact and by digging it up you introduce all new edges and air pockets.  Some criminals may try to stomp the soil down leaving boot impressions which can last for days. In the end there will always be indicators of the grave site if you know what you are looking for.

Filled Grave Site

It’s important to keep these things in mind if you plan on having your character perform such an act. If your bad guy has a bad back or walks with a limp digging a grave is going to be difficult.  He’s not going to haul a 200lb man uphill, dig a grave, and then meet up with his new girlfriend to go dancing. Also, because the process takes a long time you shouldn’t have the grave somewhere (like a public park) where someone is going to pass by every thirty minutes. Remember, it doesn’t matter what does happen but rather, what the suspect believes will happen. They generally avoid anywhere there is even a small chance of being discovered.

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About forensics4fiction

Hi there. Thank you for visiting my BLOG for crime writers. I hope you will find it interesting. I would love to hear your questions and thoughts regarding forensics and criminal investigations. I hope that the information here will help answer your questions or ignite your imagination. I am a retired senior criminalist with 15 years of forensic experience. I have served as the president of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, Rocky Mountain Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts, and the Rocky Mountain Division of the International Association for Identification. I am triple board certified in forensic related fields and one of only 40 board-certified bloodstain pattern analysts and 80 board-certified footwear examiners worldwide In addition to writing over 60 scientific papers, I have worked as the editor of the Journal of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, been interviewed by and consulted for television, books, magazines, and newspaper articles including documentaries on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

Posted on August 30, 2011, in General, The Crime Scene and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Thanks for another great post. A manuscript I’ll be editing later involves gravesides, so I’ll make sure and buff up my bad guy . . . and consider leaving some kind of evidence behind.

  2. Another excellent post, Tom. Just reading this article made me want to write a murder mystery centered around the digging of a grave. Just thinking about it gives me chills :P

    Peg, good luck with your manuscript.

  3. Thanks, Sandra. Especially since I don’t seem to be able to spell gravesites properly. Well, guess what? I did . . . the spelling gizmo changed it on me when I wasn’t looking! Now THAT’S reason for murder.

  4. lol I wonder how you dig a grave for a spellchecker.

  5. I’ve investigated my fair share of buried bodies and when I’m standing around the excavation site I always try to imagine how the killer must have felt while digging. I mean, it can take a a couple of hours in some cases and they have to be thinking something right? I wonder if they hear dogs barking or see a helicopter or small plane pass over and whether that freaks them out. I’m sure there are a lot of emotions.

  6. Try digging a hole wide enough and deep enough to plant a tree, and you’ll discover just how hard it is to dig any size hole. There’s a good chance you’ll hit tree roots which take more than a sharp shovel to cut through, then there are large rocks which may extend so far into your hole that you have to move in a different direction and start over again for most of the hole.

    Most victims are buried in shallow graves for a good reason.

  7. I’ve been following your blog for a few months now, and have found it absolutely fascinating as well as very informative. Thanks! This is the first entry that pertained to the novel I’m writing. It gave me a little chill when I saw the title and photo… My victim is murdered (manually strangled) and buried in a shallow grave in a deserted area, underneath a dirt floored shed that is subsequently torn down for a construction project. It is during the site work that the body is dug up and discovered. One of the things I’ve had a hard time researching is how much of the body would be left and how realistic it would be to be able to determine how the victim died. The stats I’ve created are: depth of abt 3 ft, clayey soil, body in situ for abt a year, avg year-round temp at that depth of 35-40 deg F. Would you care to weigh in on whether there would be enough left of the body to determine death by strangulation? Other experts I’ve spoken too said it was maybe, possibly, not entirely impossible.

  8. Thank you Jennifer, I’m glad the article is helpful to you. So as to your question.In your hypothetical scene there are two things the police might look at to determine strangulation. Actually, they aren’t definitive but for the purposes of your novel your detective characters can run with it. The first is a broken hyoid bone. This is a free-floating bone attaching musculature of the tongue in the neck. Manual strangulation doesn’t always break the bone but it happens in about 30% of the cases. Another indicator would be hemorrhagic tissue of the neck. This would only occur if the tissue was preserved. In order for that to happen the body needs to be kept cold and your time line needs to be shortened to about 6 months. That means a winter burial at as high an elevation as your setting will allow. If you can’t shorten your time line then you might consider having a ligature left on the body instead of manual strangulation or go with the broken hyoid. Technically it’s not conclusive but coupled with other evidence (like the fact that she’s been buried) it should be enough to convince your DA and police. I hope that helps.

  9. This is super, thank you. Your response jibes with other info I’ve gotten so I think I’m ok. Thank you!

  10. If a body is buried 2 to 3 feet deep and they discover the body 3 years later would they be a skeleton and if they had clothes on would they be detioriated

  11. A lot depends on the soil. Wetter soils generally degrade tissue and soil more quickly. Natural fibers will degrade quicker than synthetics in most cases. Although I doubt any readers would complain if you had the clothing and tissue completely gone. Jewelry and other artifacts will still be present though.

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