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I've got a large fantasy city of about 500,000. It's a trading hub and the capital of an empire. Period wise, I would say that it is close to 1500-1600 Europe.

I've got a community of primarily gravediggers that I am trying to figure out the size of. Unfortunately, gravediggers are not a profession listed on any of the demographic generators I've found. So my question is this:

What number or ratio of the city would likely be gravediggers? If this is unknowable, what is the relationship between the number of gravediggers and the death rate?

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At a death rate of 5% - it'll be higher during plague or famine years, lower if the city has good sanitation - there will be 25,000 graves to dig per year, or 68 per day. If it takes two people most of a day to dig one grave, and there's a little downtime, you need about 150 full-time gravediggers. Add to that a couple dozen shift supervisors, journeymen, and some administrators, and I'd say 200 dues-paying members of the Gravediggers Guild.

And probably another 50 grave robbers.


If you'd like to maximize the number of gravediggers in a city, I can think of a few reasons:

  • Plague is common. 500 K people is huge by pre-modern standards - the size of London, PLUS Paris, PLUS Naples in the 16th century (arguably the three largest cities in Europe, if you don't count Constantinople as European) - and it could be a huge population sink.
  • Individual graves are mandated by religion, law, or custom. As Murphy points out, this was not always the case in medieval Europe.
  • It's considered important that the dead be buried immediately, even if there's been mass death or the ground is frozen. You'd need a much larger pool of gravediggers to handle spikes, but they'd be idle for most of the year. More likely, there would be a pool of "on-call gravediggers," enlisted when needed, but perhaps grave digging is not compatible with any other work.
  • Gravediggers are a special hereditary caste, allowed to do no other work. Over time, there may be more grave diggers born to the trade than jobs for them to do. If they can't at least serve as groundskeepers or ditch diggers, they will in practice probably be mostly beggars who happen to also dig graves.
  • Digging requires extra man-hours, because the soil is heavy clay or rocky, graves must be very deep, or the process is interrupted for a special ritual after each foot of digging. More likely, people would turn to other forms of disposal if the ground was unsuitable, like New Orleans' vaults, but perhaps internment is considered the only acceptable way again due to religion, law, or custom.
  • Grave digging is a works program, where people with no other skills or opportunities can sign up for a pittance. A group of people can't really dig a small grave much more easily than one or two, so there's plenty of room to stretch the work.

Contrariwise, if you'd prefer that their numbers be small, such that everyone knows everyone in the grave-digging community:

  • Like Murphy said, mass graves are common. During times of plague, a layer of corpses, a layer of lime to kill the smell, and another layer of corpses was common. During the plague of Justinian, towers were filled like horrific grain silos.
  • Cemeteries are out of town: even poor people are traditionally buried back at their home villages, if possible. You'd have wagon-loads of corpses leaving the city each day; "bring out yer dead!"
  • Disposal by cremation is preferred; only certain castes, classes, or eccentric people prefer burial. Exposure and burial at sea were also used, historically, but neither is likely to be practical for such a large city.
  • Most people bury their own; grave diggers are employed only by those too weak to honor their dead by personally digging a grave.
  • People are only partly buried. Perhaps the head is believed to carry all that is sacred about the deceased; it is mummified and carefully interred in a small narrow grave, while the rest of the body is cremated, or enjoyed as a family meal.
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Jon of All Trades has the right general idea but I think the numbers are a bit off.

5% sounds incredibly high, that would imply an average life expectancy of 20 years old. Life expectancy at birth was 35+ so death rates would have been closer to 2.5% per year. Add to that, not everyone got a grave to themselves. Paupers, prostitutes and babies of fairly poor people who died at a young age would have been piled in mass graves

This is what the modern version looks like, in medieval times they generally wouldn't have bothered with the separate coffins for the very poor: coffin pile

These types of graves take a lot less work per person.

Also it wouldn't take two professionals a whole day to dig a single grave, one professional could probably dig more than one in a single day but lets assume at least one grave.

mass graves are probably 5 or more times more efficient.

So call it 12K dead per year, lets assume half of them are too poor to afford a private or family grave.

So 6k normal graves and mass graves for another 6k. At one grave per day per gravedigger the private graves mean 6000 man-days and the mass graves mean 1200 man-days.

Lets assume 300 man-days per gravedigger per year for the sake of round numbers giving us about 24 grave diggers.

But we're assuming perfect efficiency and good organisation so lets double that, call it a round 50 full-time gravediggers

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    $\begingroup$ 5% is not that far off. Your difficulty arises from the fact that you live in a modern society with very low infant mortality. Medieval societies had horrible rates, as high as 50%. So if 50% die as infants or young children (say, under 2 years), and the other half live to an average age of 40, the average lifespan is 20 years. One study of parish records in 17th century France showed that the average marriage age was greater than the average lifespan. And no, that doesn't mean zombie weddings, either. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Oct 1 '15 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast the at-birth average life expectancy still covers that. If you made it to age 21 in those days your life expectancy was 60+. Not 40. When I talk about a life expectancy at birth of about 35 I'm factoring in those infant deaths so on average in any particular year about 1/35th of the population will die. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy Late medieval English peerage[22][23] 30 At age 21, life expectancy was an additional 43 years (total age 64).[24] ) $\endgroup$ – Murphy Oct 1 '15 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ The death rates in medieval cities were generally much higher than the surrounding villages. They depended on an influx of healthy immigrants to maintain themselves. Still, good point about not everyone getting a personal grave. $\endgroup$ – user243 Oct 1 '15 at 19:42
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If there is a city with 500,000 thousand people and the average life-span is 70 years old. Then there will be about 7,000 people dead every year. In the fantasy city let's say supply and demand are the same. It takes nearly a full day to dig a grave so lets say someone can dig 300 graves a year (allow a bit of sickness or holiday). Then this city would need 25 grave diggers.

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