What’s it Like to Dig Graves by Hand?

Mark Hubbard has been doing just that for over 40 years

Digging graves by hand is not as much fun as one might think. Roots, rocks, frozen soil, rainwater, snowfall and sudden soil collapses are a few of the sediment impediments you’re likely to unearth. Yet it needs to be done because you have a firm deadline. Period, end of sentence. Mark Hubbard has been facing these challenges for 40 years, and although his company, Dignified Cemetery Services, has expanded into monuments and vaults, he and his crew break out their shovels and picks, and still dig out those perfect rectangles by hand. Whatever and whenever. All year long.

Photo by David Mendelsohn

  • I started digging alone 40 years ago. Now I have 12 trucks.
  • I remember standing on the edge of my first hole in admiration, but within seconds I fell in with a bunch of dirt and grass. You eventually learn never to stand on the edge of an open grave.
  • I’d only get the difficult cemeteries where no one else wanted to dig with hardpan, large rocks, roots and water.
  • Hardpan is a dark soil you cannot dig without loosening. You have to painstakingly use a pick and then shovel.
  • To remove rocks, you have dig around them, then pull them out. Once I set a rock on my tailgate and it snapped the tailgate right off the truck.
  • Funerals are never canceled [due to] weather. You can find yourself in pouring rain, snow and extreme heat.
  • In the winter, I have to use a jackhammer to get through the frost. If it’s a cold winter with little snow, I have had over three feet of freeze.
  • Every grave requires the removal of about 20 wheelbarrows of dirt. That’s the allowance for the burial vault.
  • Sometimes you have to wheel them 100 yards to the dump pile in the cemetery. It can be more challenging than the digging. I’ve had a lot of people quit after that.
  • To hand-dig a grave it takes between two and eight hours, depending on the grave and the conditions.
  • When I was a younger, I encountered an ideal situation to break a hand-digging world record. I dug the grave from start to finish in 50 minutes. It is a time that I am still proud of today.
  • I come from a family of farmers and loggers, so hard physical work was a normal way of life.
  • We are always looking for good gravediggers. Qualifications include small head, big back, ability to draw a rectangle and a strong understanding of how a shovel works.
  • Six feet under is a fallacy. Graves are 52 inches deep, 40 inches wide and eight feet long.

Hubbard notes that prior to the 1940s, burial vaults were not mandatory and this is why you often see sunken gravesites and tipped monuments in the older section of the cemeteries. “Now, 95 percent of cemeteries in New England require a burial vault,” says Hubbard. Burial vaults cost as little as $1,000 for a simple concrete affair to upward of $12,000 for a fancy model like this Doric Bronze with triple wall protection.

Categories: Q&A