In my society, honour is all important. A condemned criminal can recover his or her family's honour by burying themselves alive as a form of suicide.

My question is: How deep can an ordinary human be expected to be able to commit suicide by burying themselves in an easy-to-dig loamy soil? Ideally they should be able to end up six feet under with the level of the soil above them flat or slightly raised. No part of them should be visible.

A diagram or series of diagrams showing the process would be appreciated.


They use a flat level plot of easily dug soil. For the purposes of this question, the area of the plot can be considered to be 'sufficiently large'.

They are allowed to prepare by removing an amount of soil equal to their own body volume plus a little more to allow for the soil settling. After a week the relatives can return regularly to shovel some of this back to keep things level.

The only tool or equipment allowed is an ordinary gravedigger's shovel.

enter image description here

The condemned person must wear only normal light clothing at all times and work alone.

No breathing apparatus is allowed at any stage.

To regain the maximum amount of honour, the soil must completely cover the 'body' and the soil left around the edges must be (a) minimal, (b) level with the surrounding soil or nearly so, and (c) as tidy as possible.

The time limit is 1 month from the start of the sentence. If they haven't started or completed their task in time then they are buried by someone else and their family loses their honour.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "clean grave" requirement is hard to implement, and a bit pointless. If the point is to preserve honor of the family, the said family should help clean up. After all, this is the family that produced the criminal, or failed to curb their tendencies. If there is no family to help, why should criminal do the hard work? $\endgroup$
    – Bald Bear
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Bald Bear - They have to do it alone to expunge their sins. The family can do some tidying after a week but more honour comes from making the best-looking self-made grave. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ I'm really struggling to see how this is about building a world. Could you clarify that part, please? $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ @a CVn - A novel world has customs. If I want[ed] to write a story about the world I have invented and one of its customs is self-burial of criminals then where else can I get a reality check for this? It seems to me to be part of the everyday standard fare of world-building. I'm sure I could find other examples if I had to. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 21:56

7 Answers 7


The person can completely bury himself using the following steps:

  • dig the 6 feet deep hole and place the removed soil into a funnel like container with the bottom closed by a removable lid, extended for the entire length of the hole

  • connect the said lid to a rope

  • lay flat on the bottom of the hole

  • pull the rope

The soil will drop in the hole and will fill it with the man inside.

The above mentioned procedure leaves only the funnel outside, and a fairly low bulge which can later be flattened, satisfying all the 3 requirements.

  • $\begingroup$ It assumes the contraption doesn't violate the tidy rule - but I like it a lot better than my answer. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 19:48
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    $\begingroup$ Yes but, as I stated just above the picture, the only equipment allowed is a shovel. If you can somehow make a funnel out of the shovel or of soil then maybe this could work. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ I suspect that the company that sells/ rents the funnel will be able to argue that the device is not a tool or equipment, merely an opportune place to collect the turned earth. It's not making digging the hole any easier - indeed, it's probably making it harder. Where there's money to be made, there's ways to convince people to amend the rules. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ @VBartilucci - This would be unacceptable. It's like Japanese warriors committing Seppuku after taking pain-killers. They just wouldn't do it. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 20:51
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    $\begingroup$ It's your story, so I can't dispute you. I simply suggest that like in most things, people who want to make money will offer suggestions to "improve" a process, and spend some resources to convince people What A Good Idea it would be. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 20:54

A classic grave like you picture is for lowering a coffin. Your condemned criminal does not get a coffin. They can bury themselves much more efficiently by digging a smaller hole (2-3 feet in diameter) down to 6ft, then a similarly-sized sideways tunnel (or a slanted tunnel from the surface). Then crawl into the tunnel, and make/let it collapse on themselves. A smaller/shorter shovel would actually be more useful.

The biggest issue is keeping the tunnel from collapsing early, and you not allow planks to reinforce the ceiling. I guess they can use their own body to support the tunnel roof, and rely on others to fill in the hole.

I hope you realize it will take a rediculous amount of willpower to do it.

Edit: New way. Made mud bricks, maybe using own clothes as reinforcement, and/or letting them dry in the sun. Make an arched vault ceiling out of them over the grave. Keep piling dirt on top the ceiling until grave is deep enough, then collapse it from below. The dirt will fall down, giving you your clean grave. It might indeed take a month due to premature collapses.

It would really help to have some material to reinforce the mud bricks. Is the criminal allowed to harvest grass or roots from the "sufficiently large' area?

Edit 2: undermining Thanks to OP's comment. Dig a small round hole down, then go sideways and turn it into a J, and then back up turning it into a U. Pile the dug out dirt on top of this U. Eventually the whole thing will collapse, with dirt piled on top going straight down. It will not be perfectly level, but at least there will be no dirt pile outside of the grave site.

Honestly, perfectly level gravesite is impossible. Regular graves are always raised a bit, since the body takes up space, and digging the earth fluffs it up.

  • $\begingroup$ They can't rely on others. I've excluded that. As for willpower, if they don't bury themselves then someone else will and their family will be dishonoured for ten generations if not longer. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ without outside help, and no planks for temporary supports or release mechamism, there is no way to create a clean grave. Why not have the criminal drown themselves (with rocks in their clothes)? Drowing is a very painful death, and it leaves no mess on the surface. $\endgroup$
    – Bald Bear
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ Clean water is a valuable resource in this society. Drowning would be sacrilege. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 20:54
  • $\begingroup$ @chasly I put a new approach into an edit. how do you like that? $\endgroup$
    – Bald Bear
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ also, if you have easy-to-dig soil, you will have plenty of water (without water, you will have sand, rocks or clay). If most of water is not fit to drink, that is precisely where the criminal should drown themselves. $\endgroup$
    – Bald Bear
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 21:23

The challenge isn't digging the hole as much as it is covering themselves afterwards. You could probably get a six foot hole dug, but you couldn't get more than a few inches of dirt back onto you. Even if you only dug a hole two feet deep or so, sat up and pulled the dirt onto you, the logistics become difficult. You could get your legs well covered for sure, but how do you get your arms and face covered to any sufficient degree?

About the only thing I can think of is to dig the hole, fill it very loosely, and burrow down into it, pushing the dirt to one side, and knocking it back over yourself. That'd certainly exhaust you, making the job of getting out more difficult.

You didn't specify that they need be face up when the process is complete. It might be easier to work if one went in face down. Also, one could (and here's where it really gets horrific) speed the process by pressing one's face against or into the more densely pack untouched earth as the bottom, smothering oneself, at least to the point of unconsciousness. That would leave you more vulnerable to a more permanent smothering and expiry.

One could also, I suppose, try to brain oneself with the shovel right at the end.

  • $\begingroup$ Can't you undermine your six-foot hole and make it unstable enough to fall on you? That is the sort of solution I am hoping for. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ Not a bad idea - pile the dirt right at the edges, and chip at the sides. But it all comes back to the idea that there's only so much dirt you could get onto yourself, and it's not going to be terribly tightly packed. It'd be relatively easy to get out. The exhaustion will probably make it harder, but at the end of the day (certainly at the end of yours), you're going to have to make the decision not to try and escape, and just stay down there and smother. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ As I've stated, they have a month to do it. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ There's an old joke about jumping off a building - "It's not the fall, it's the sudden stop at the end". Similarly here, it's not the month to dig the hole, it's the three to five minutes at the end that makes the difference. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 20:00

Dig diagonally until you're perhaps four feet under. Then, level horizontally and start pushing the excavated earth back (it won't go out of the hole, it'll just accumulate behind you, leaving only a narrow air space).

The difficult thing is actually not getting buried too soon. But once you're all below ground level, if the soil is loose enough, it will simply collapse. If it isn't, you can work on it before excavating, essentially building a mound of destabilized soil.

This actually happened to some kid years ago, he was digging under a sand dune at the seaside. It turns out that the weight of the soil will crush one's chest and lungs - they attempted a rescue, but I seem to remember that he didn't make it.

Even if you didn't manage to collapse the soil over your body, continuing to tamp the soil behind you will leave you sealed in a sufficiently airtight space. Suffocation will follow shortly after, and you will be effectively dead and buried below ground, with not too much earth displaced.

  • $\begingroup$ Where does the earth go while you are digging diagonally? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 23:15
  • $\begingroup$ That part goes out of the hole, and you can pile it up over the tunneled zone to help with the collapse. However, excavated, unpacked earth will take a larger volume than the hole. $\endgroup$
    – LSerni
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 23:42

This is kind of a guess, but it seems a human can't really dig a hole deeper than they can throw the dirt out (height to shoulders + length of arms + length of shovel from point your holding it + tossing height based on consistency and hydration of dirt...) and probably can't cover themselves by more dirt than they can disloge from the space above them once they reach that point. Since there's a certain amount of randomness in that effect and since the arms must stay below the head when you do it, I'm going for no more than 6-10 inches above the head unless you're really lucky ... and the shovel is sticking out when you're done.

As for a fixed number, that depends on too many variables to give you one.

  • $\begingroup$ Remember that the actual surface area of the plot is 'sufficiently large'. This means that they can throw soil to one side in large amounts as long as at some stage it falls back in again leaving the surface approximately level. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ Away from the hole isn't the problem. Up is the problem. If people on top were clearing away the tossed soil, you'd still have a limit imposed by how far up you can throw the soil (which would require a fairly large hole in width). $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ There is no prohibition against digging steps into the soil and tamping them down. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 19:50
  • $\begingroup$ You've got me on that one. I'm liking L.Dutch's answer better, though. Neat, clean, fast, deep, and a couple o' dudes to move the contraption into storage when you're done. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 19:52

If soil is soft and loamy, the most reliable method would be a collapse.

  1. Dig a narrow 8 feet deep pit;
  2. Dig a cave in a side of it;
  3. Once you are completely in the cave, start widening it;
  4. Soon, the cave will collapse, and there would be enough dirt above to completely bury you.
  • $\begingroup$ This is looking good and I suspect it might work but I have to ask. Where do you put the dirt you have excavated from the 8 foot pit? You need to make sure it ends up back in the hole. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ First, the dirt will be piled up above the future cave. Next, when the cave is widened, it can go to the pit, it's Ok to bury your entrance. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ When you are making/widening the cave, where does that dirt go? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 22:31
  • $\begingroup$ As I said, first on top of the cave, then from cave to the pit. It's Ok to block the entrance. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ Would you be able to provide a series of rough diagrams? I think I get what you are saying but I can't picture it fully. If it looks feasible or you can make it feasible then I'll accept the answer. If I am understanding it correctly the criminal is not restricted to 8 feet in depth - am I right? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 22:50

Once the soil is at armpit height, you can't pull much more soil back into the grave. Then, even if you bury your arms, your head remains exposed. There are two ways:

  1. make a deep trench, deeper than your own height. Then, dig a wider trench below. The overhanging soil will collapse. Someone still needs to flatten the ground afterwards.

  2. L. Dutch's idea of a funnel is good. The main drawback: make sure the soil in the funnel is dry. Otherwise, the funnel gets jammed. After rainfall, it is better to fill it with sand instead. Someone still needs to clean after him.

You did not mention who places the tombstone after the job was done. :)

  • $\begingroup$ (1) Your first solution is the sort of thing I'm looking for. I'm looking for the best version of this. (2) Sorry but I have excluded any equipment other than the shovel. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 20:56

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