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Cemetery Negligence – Double Depth Burial – Correct vs. Incorrect

This is the first in a series of blog posts about funeral home negligence and cemetery negligence, one of Kaminsky Law’s core practice areas. This one is about the Double Depth Burial – Correct vs. Incorrect.

One of the recent trends at cemeteries is to bury two vaults in one grave space, on on top of another. This is called “Double Depth Burial”. Although this concept is not brand new, it has increased in popularity for a variety of reasons and both cemeteries and funeral homes are suggesting it to customers. Described below is a correct vs. incorrect double depth burial and how you, the consumer, can figure out whether the cemetery was negligent in performing your loved ones’ double depth burial.

What is the difference between a double depth burial and regular burial or interment?

A single depth burial involves placing one casket or burial container (sometimes called vault) in each grave space, side-by-side. A double depth burial means that the cemetery buries two caskets or burial containers one on top of another in the same grave space, rather than side-by-side as usually done.

A standard double depth burial is illustrated below. Typically, the cemetery buries the first container approximately nine (9) feet below the surface of the ground. Then, the cemetery buries the second burial container on top, at the standard depth of six (6) feet.

Illustration of a correct double depth burial where the first container is buried at 9 feet and the second container is buried at 6 feet
Correct standard double depth burial where the first bottom container is laid approximately 9 feet below the surface and the second top container is laid approximately 6 feet below the surface As a result the top container is at least 18 inches below the surface of the ground

Why choose a double depth burial instead of a single depth?

There are several reasons why someone might decide to bury their loved ones in a double depth grave instead of a single depth grave. The main reason for consumers is because only one grave space needs to be purchased. This greatly reduces the cost of buying land at a cemetery, which has been going up over the last few decades. It is also cheaper to buy one headstone instead of two. Sometimes there is not enough room to bury two loved ones next to each other and the only realistic alternative is to bury them on top of each other instead.

The main reason for cemeteries is that they are able to use their space more efficiently and fit twice as many burials in the same amount of grave spaces. For this reason, cemeteries sometimes offer specials to incentivize consumers to buy a double depth grave space.

Double depth burials are legal and common in Pennsylvania as long as they comply with Pennsylvania’s burial laws and regulations.

Pennsylvania Burial Laws require that the container be at least eighteen (18) inches below the natural surface of the ground

Regardless of whether there are one or two containers buried a grave space, the top of the top-most burial container must be a minimum of eighteen (18) inches below the natural surface of the ground to comply with Pennsylvania’s laws and burial regulations. If a casket is buried without a burial container, it has to be buried at least two (2) feet, or twenty-four (24) inches below the natural surface of the ground according to the applicable Pennsylvania burial regulations. Specifically, the Pennsylvania code for interment of human remains states that:

(a) The distance from parts of the top of the outer case containing the casket may not be less than 1.5 feet (18 inches) from the natural surface of the ground.
(b) When a casket is not placed in an outer case or when a body is not placed in a casket, the distance from parts of the casket or body may be no less than 2 feet—24 inches—from the natural surface of the ground.
(c) The superintendent, sexton, caretaker or other person in charge of the cemetery shall be responsible for graves being dug to the depths required by subsections (a) and (b) and maintaining the depth requirements.

28 Pa. Code § 1.21. Depth of graves.

What does an improper double depth burial look like?

Below is an illustration of an improper double depth burial where the cemetery may have been negligent and, as a result, the top container is fewer than 18 inches below the surface of the ground:

Cemetery negligence resulting in improper or unlawful double depth burial where the top container is not 18 inches below the surface of the ground
Improper double depth burial where the first bottom container was not buried 9 feet below the surface and as a result the second top container cant be buried 6 feet below the surface Because of the improper burial the top container is not 18 inches below the natural surface of the ground This is an example of cemetery negligence in a double depth burial

How can I tell if the double depth burial was done improperly or if the cemetery was negligent?

The main question people ask is, “how do I know if the cemetery was negligent?” or “how do I know that the double depth burial was done improperly?” After all, the caskets or vaults are below ground… This is an excellent question and often there is no easy way to tell. Some factors that may indicate that the double depth burial was done wrong are:

  • When you arrive at the cemetery and the grave is open, the first container (the one buried at double depth) doesn’t appear to be shallow enough. If it appears that the hole for the second container is not six (6) feet deep, that is sign that the second container can not be buried correctly.
  • When you arrive at the cemetery, the cemetery workers don’t want to have the service happen at the grave site, or give some excuse as to why it can’t occur at the grave site. The cemetery workers may try to give reasons why the service should happen somewhere else, like flooding, mud, or unstable ground. This is often done so that the family doesn’t notice that the first burial is too shallow.
  • The cemetery workers don’t want to actually lower the container into the grave in front of the family. Again, there could be some excuse given, that there’s water in the grave because of flooding or that the workers need to adjust something before the vault can be lowered into the ground.
  • Days or weeks later, after the container is buried and the ground settles, corners or pieces of the vault are exposed. The vault is usually concrete gray and very distinctive from the green grass or brown dirt. If you can see pieces of the vault under ground, its possible that it is not buried deep enough.
  • After the container is buried and the ground settles, you can touch the top of the burial container or vault–with your hand or regular ruler. Again, a concrete vault or polyurethane vault feels very different from dirt or stone. If you can reach your finger into the ground and touch the burial container, it is unlikely that it is buried 18 inches below the natural surface of the ground. If you stick a regular 12 inch ruler in the ground and it touches the vault, it is not buried correctly.

If you think something is wrong while at the cemetery, speak to the funeral director or person conducting the burial. They are experts (hopefully) and have presided over hundreds if not thousands of burials. If something is wrong, they will often be the first to notice. Plus, they should be on your side when it comes to getting the cemetery to correct the issue.

What can I do if the cemetery was negligent?

If it looks like the cemetery was negligent or performed an unlawful / improper double depth burial. What should you do next?

First, document everything.

Take photographs, put everything in writing (text or email). For example, after you speak to the funeral home director, write a follow up text or emails summarizing your conversation. Unless the cemetery and the funeral home director are the same company, the funeral home director will usually be on your side and try to help. Ask the funeral director to contact the cemetery and copy you on any emails. Many times the cemetery was negligent, but it was an accident and they are going to be willing to correct the error and the funeral home can help make that happen. If the cemetery tries to call you and make any offer, ask them to put it in writing. Ask for names and contact information of people that you spoke to and send them a follow-up summary to confirm your conversation and understanding.

It is your call whether to contact a lawyer at this point or try to resolve it yourself, but sometimes a lawyer may move things along if the cemetery seems non-responsive or unwilling to help.

Second, make sure you know your rights.

It is important that you know your rights when dealing with a cemetery. They are experts, you are not. They may not give you all of your available options and look to do what’s best for them. Some things to avoid:

  • Don’t sign anything until you have had a lawyer review it.
  • Putting a mound of dirt on top of the grave to meet the 18 inch requirement is insufficient. The law in Pennsylvania says “natural surface of the ground” and adding dirt on top of the grave is not a “natural” surface.
  • By law in Pennsylvania, a cemetery is not allowed to disinter (dig up) or move remains without your permission. If they move the remains without your permission, call a lawyer immediately!

Contact Kaminsky Law for a Free Consultation!

Unfortunately, sometimes the cemetery is difficult to work with and the funeral director doesn’t want to help. In that case, you should call a lawyer. The lawyers at Kaminsky Law are experienced with many types of cemetery negligence, burial issues, and specifically double depth burial errors. You can either fill out a form on our Contact Us page or call our hotline at (215) 876-0800 for a free consultation.

We are available to review your situation, answer questions, and help you resolve your cemetery dispute!

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Anton Kaminsky
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