This article on grave digging in fantasy is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the cultural, historical, or world-building aspects of fantasy with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
The Expert: Terry Newman
Terry Newman is a former ultrastructural morphologist, turned award-winning scriptwriter, playwright, and musical theatre and comedy writer. His first job looking down an electron microscope involved an investigation of root structure. This gave him a very healthy respect for this plant organ and the challenge they provide for anybody needing to inter the departed.
He is the author of the Detective Strongoak ‘Dwarf Noir’ #1 Kindle Bestselling fantasy series, where there is rarely enough time to bury the dead.
So You Want to Bury A Body: Grave Digging for Writers
There comes a time in most people’s lives, certainly in most writers lives, when they’ll need to start thinking about how to bury a body. A dead body that is. It can’t be that hard, can it? After all, we’ve seen them do it on TV. A brief shot of a spade (or is it a shovel?) in action, a brief cut in the film, and the body is next to the grave ready to be disposed of. The sides of the grave are always nice and neat and self-supporting as well, so how hard can it be?
The answer may surprise you! No, click-bait aside, it probably won’t surprise you at all – that’s if you’ve tried to dig anything, ever.
So, how long is it going to take you to dig that grave – before you can move on with the action?
Brief answer: a pretty long time, depending, of course, on quite a few different factors. Here are the main ones you need to take into account when you have that non-essential character to inter.
Where’s your Grave?
Woods and forests are popular places to dispose of a dead body (and to hide the loot from your bank raid if you do crime too). This is a bad idea, not the crime writing – even combining that with fantasy is great! The reason for the problem is all to do with roots. Roots are wonderful things. They are plant organs of absorption, aeration, and food storage and are also a means of anchorage and support. They differ from the plant stem in lacking buds, nodes and leaves, but not in being equally tough.
One study estimated that roots make up 22% of total forest biomass, 47% of total shrubland biomass, and 67% of total grassland biomass. Globally, it is estimates that the ‘below-ground’ portion of plants is 24%. One single winter rye plant (Secale cereale), has been estimated to produce 386.9 miles of roots. The Shepherd’s tree (Boscia albitrunca), native to the Kalahari Desert, has a root that can grow to a depth of more than 70 meters, or 230 feet. The greatest reported depth to which any tree’s roots has actually penetrated is 400 feet. This root belonged to a Wild Fig tree at Echo Caves, near Ohrigstad in Mpumalanga.
Surely then it would best to chose to bury your body in a forest, with fewer roots around, than in convenient but root-rich grassland? And surely a good sharp blade will take care of what roots there are in a forest? Sadly, for the amateur gravedigger, the roots that grow close to the trunk of a tree can be as thick as the upper branches of that tree! Some challenge eh?
Let’s consider the choice of instrumentation next.
What’s your tool: Shovel or Spade?
Talking of earth up-ending implements: which actually is best for digging a grave, shovel or spade? And what is the difference anyway? It’s easy to remember, a shovel looks most like the Ace of Spades in a pack of playing cards! Strangely it’s true. Shovels have a scooped, rounded blade with a slightly pointed end. Spades have a flat, rectangular blade, and the tip is flat and sharp instead of curved with a point. In terms of function, shovels dig and spades scoop (and slice). If you want to dig a hole, like for example a grave, you need a shovel. If you need to move a pile of loose material, say loose earth in a grave, choose a spade. Professional gravediggers, rather than our enthusiastic amateur may use a spade (or sod-cutter) to cut the outline of the grave and remove the top layer, the turf or sod. Digging the grave itself then usually requires shovels and even pickaxes or mattocks. The mattock (also known as a grub axe) is a handy stout instrument with a cutting edge perpendicular to the handle rather than parallel. No, it’s not the sort of tool you can keep in a handy saddlebag. Unfortunately deaths in fantasy are rarely conveniently located.
Oh, and if you’re doing the grave digging in winter the pickaxe option will probably be required.
When and where are you digging?
Of course one doesn’t always get much choice about the location for interring one’s stiff. If you’re living in the Northern Hemisphere sorry to tell you that one-fourth of the land has an underground layer that stays frozen all year long. While half of it freezes and then thaws every year. Best not to try burying somebody in Canada (or equivalent) then in the winter as for some 4-5 months the ground will be solid.
Remember, burying is usually to prevent animals digging up your departed and eating them. Also to stop zombies and revenants; revenants being dead people whose spirit has come back and is in control of their original body. Unlike zombies, revenants have a sense of their past lives and do not usually feed on the living, but still might. When it comes to getting your body six-foot under (actually 7 foot legally in the UK) you do really need it deep underground before 4 days have passed; otherwise they will not be pleasant company. The latter problem also changes with ambient temperature of course. Warm weather can make life easier for digging, if it’s not too warm and your soil bakes – or it becomes too wet! Rain does not make it easy to dig – try shoveling sludge some time and persistent rain can mean your soil water table rises and you are trying to empty out a pond. So, what about your soil?
What’s Your Soil?
Chief among the other factors affecting your grave digging is the soil type. There are six main soil groups: clay, chalk, silt, peat, and loam and they each have different properties when it comes to ease of gardening – or burying a dead body.
Clay soils are sticky and claggy when wet and then become rock hard as they dry. Clay soils are poorly draining and have few air spaces, but if you do have to dispose of your corpse in a clay soil, probably best not to do it in high summer. Whatever, to make a real impact when digging in clay soils, you are going to need a circus strongman’s biceps – or maybe a circus strongman or a troll.
Chalky soils are larger grained than most other soils and usually stonier as well, often overlying a chalk or limestone bedrock. This may not be very deep in fact and digging out stones is not anybody’s idea of a good time.
Silt, peat and loam soils are all much easier to dig. These are called friable. Friable soil, a soil that has the crumbly texture ideal is excellent for digging but also for root growth! A friable soil also means that is much easier for the walls of your grave to cave in. You don’t want that. Not only is continually emptying the grave time consuming, but getting soil collapsing all over you while standing in a grave is never good for the nerves.
You probably won’t find many friable soils in your fantasy land; you are much more likely to come across rocks and stones. The problems involved in trying to dig rocks and stones should be self-explanatory.
So, when grave digging, what exactly is the ‘pretty long time’ I referenced previously?
A professional gravedigger, with the right tools in a nice graveyard, might be able to dig two graves on a good day. Otherwise a minimum of 6 hours, unless it’s clay or a particularly root-filled forest, in which case consider 2-3 days. You might want to consider the alternatives, but don’t start me on cairns!
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