Digging a Grave: The Criminal Perspective
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.
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.
Posted on August 30, 2011, in General, The Crime Scene and tagged Clandestine Grave, Crime Scene, csi, detective, fiction, forensics, murder, mystery, police, thriller, tom adair. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.