Grave digging DIY

Grave digging DIY

Straps and support boards

Grave digging DIY: Yes, you can. Recently a family nearby bought a coffin from us and buried on their own land. Here’s how they prepared the gravesite.

For readers just joining in, we are Piedmont Pine Coffins in North Carolina, USA. We spread the news about natural burial, and we make pine box coffins with only old-fashioned woodworking tools like planes and chisels — no electric tools.

Grave digging DIY

With a backhoe or by hand, you dig a grave deep enough so there’ll be 18 inches from ground level to the lid of the buried coffin. To make the grave wide and long enough, dig an extra 4 or 5 inches on each side of the coffin.

Grave digging DIY

Tamping bar from Home Depot, $35

A tamping bar is a helpful digging tool. The sharp end cuts roots and shaves dirt from the sides of the hole for that neat vertical presentation. Heavy, though! It’s a tool your muscles will remind you about for a few days down the road.

After the digging is done, continue by putting two 2×4″ boards in the bottom of the hole. The coffin will thus rest slightly elevated. This means your ropes or straps for lowering the coffin won’t be pinned underneath it, and you’ll be able to pull them right back up. (If you want, you can skip this step by using biodegradable cotton or hemp ropes. In that case, just throw the ropes in!)

Lay three 2×6″ boards across the width of the grave. These will support the coffin during the graveside service. Note here an undertaker’s trick: Along with the three support boards, pre-position the three lowering ropes/straps across the grave. These should be 25-30′ long. Just below you’ll see why pre-positioning is important.

Carry the coffin to the grave and rest it on the boards. When it’s time, the pallbearers lift the coffin with the ropes, while others remove the three support boards. Now the way is clear to lower the coffin by rope into the hole, where it rests on the (optional) 2×4’s. If you want to, now pull up the ropes.

No burial police

Because this is grave digging DIY, please know that you can come up with another system. If you do, share it with me and I’ll spread the word. Quiet as it’s kept, there are no burial police. You have freedom and power in this hard, beautiful family function, and taking charge of it, I say, is immensely satisfying in the process of laying a loved one down and then grieving them.

Now, shovel the dirt back in. It won’t all fit, instead making a mound of honor above the coffin that will last for a long time. The mound, which is a great place to make native memorial plantings, will eventually flex convex to concave with the disintegration of the pine box below. Dust to dust.

Finally, a disclaimer. We’re talking here about burial on your own land, which is great and which must be arranged with your county ahead of time. There’s some paperwork and some restrictions involved, so get started ahead of time. The photo at left from the beautiful Paxtang Cemetery in Pennsylvania is not of a DIY grave — Paxtang is a public cemetery — but it does show you how gorgeous a natural burial can be.


  1. Don, Z’s coffin was beautiful, wondered if you made it. Question: What are the laws regarding burial on your own land?

    • Hi Lynn and thanks! Yes, I made Z’s coffin. I happen to know that the county inspector came out on a weekday before the SAturday funeral to look at the grave location. That’s all it takes, a visit from the county water people.

  2. Marian Ronan says

    Hey, Donald. I’m a friend of your sister, Julie. I thought you might like my review of Julie’s friend Ann Neumann’s book, “The Good Death,” on Marginalia Review of Books. What she’s addressing is pretty far removed from what you do, but there’s some overlap, too. Also, I’m going to call you some day to talk about how to have a green death here in NYC. Best wishes, MR

    • Yes, Marian. I’ve been following Ann Neumann’s release and the surrounding publicity. Will check out your review, which I believe I saw notice of. My connection to Ann’s writing so far is a book by Stephen Jenkinson called Die Wise. Stephen is a former palliative care guy. Btw, in NYC, Amy Cunningham is a good resource for natural burial. She knows all the national Home Funeral Alliance folks, and she has a licensed funeral home , I believe in Brooklyn.

    • Marian, I read your Marginalia review. Especially on the assisted-dying question, I’m putting it all in my pipe to smoke it. Haven’t made up my mind, even what I would do, much less what I’d recommend as public policy. In Stephen Jenkinson’s book Die Wise, he’s against. Not from a Catholic perspective. No, he draws on his interpretation of indigenous people’s understanding of death. There are lessons in the dying process for those left behind, he says, and you become a worthy ancestor by being willing to teach them. I.e., by going all the way without an assist. He comes from a palliative care background, so he’s not against painkillers, but he is for full consciousness and self-awareness, whenever possible, to the end.

  3. Great article, thanks for sharing. One of the last things I have to accomplish is coming up with grave diggers when/if the family can’t do the digging themselves.


    • Yes, Sheila. I suppose back in the old days two hundred years ago you needn’t have pre-arranged it, because the community already understood that it was their duty and the right people would come out of the background — even if not family — to do it when the time came. Neighbors, churchfolk, etc.