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Burying the dead

Six foot under

In 1666, and again in 1679, Parliament ordered that all bodies should be buried in a shroud of woollen cloth. Though chiefly intended to stimulate the English woollen industry, the measure remained on the statute book until it was repealed in 1814.

The practice of digging graves to a depth of six feet goes back at least to the 16th century and is believed to be a precaution against plague.

Regulations now specify that there must be a layer of earth of at least six inches between each coffin in a grave and that there must be at least three feet (sometimes two feet) between the final coffin and the surface.

Nonconformists and Catholics

Until town cemeteries were set up in the mid-19th century, most burials took place in parish churchyards. The Church of England provided burial space both for its own members and for those of different faiths - such as nonconformists, Catholics and Jews - but burials had to be conducted by Anglican clergymen in accordance with the prayer book service.  

In the larger towns, however, non-Anglican groups set up their own burial grounds where they could hold the services specified by their own faiths and denominations.  

In 1880, after many years campaigning by nonconformists, Parliament passed the Burial Law Amendment Act, which removed the obligation to follow the prescribed form of service for burial in Anglican churchyards.  

This was of particular importance in parishes where there was no nonconformist or Catholic burial ground nearby.


Suicides were traditionally buried at a crossroads, sometimes with a stake through their body. This barbaric practice was condemned in Parliament in 1822 after the foreign secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, committed suicide but was buried in Westminster Abbey.  

An Act passed in 1823 allowed suicides private burial in a churchyard, but only at night and without a Christian service. A review of the law resulted in a new Act in 1882 allowing burial in daylight hours. Parliament did not decriminalise suicide until 1961, despite the fact that it had been suggested in 1823.



Page last updated 1st May 2014