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Some notable stories and movies show characters being buried alive, and then digging themselves out.

This has apparently happened in reality, such as this story: Girl digs self out of grave, points to rapist.

Is such a feat possible for what one would normally consider a grave (i.e. more than one foot (30cm) of dirt)?

I would think it would not take much dirt before one would suffocate and the dirt would become too heavy to move.

If a grave is defined as being dirt cover over a body of at least 1 foot (30cm) deep, could one dig oneself out of a grave, and if so how much deeper could one be buried and still realistically dig oneself out?

  • The questions I would have are:How much spare room available in the container the person is in (to store dirt)? Can they open the container, without moving all the dirt above them? How well did the person filling the grave do packing down the dirt? – Zoredache Feb 9 '12 at 1:18
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This feat is only feasible if the victim can apply more pressure to the soil than the soil can apply back. Otherwise, they are helpless to move the soil.

If we take the density of soil to be uniformly 1 g cm^-3 (a conservative estimate), then the pressure from the mass of soil would be 98 Pa / cm (using 9.8 as acceleration due to gravity).

Under 4 inches of soil (10cm), that amounts to 980 Pa.

NASA studies showed that a person can exert 818 N of force Figure 4.9.3-6. This force is spread over both hands, which are - on average - 18.9cm x 8.4cm Tables 1 and 2, for a total area of 0.032 m^2. This gives a pressure exerted of 25.8 kPa - easily enough to dig away from 4 inches of soil. (Solving this actually would allow someone - under ideal conditions, to push through 2.6m of soil!)

Unfortunately in most cases conditions won't be ideal for pushing, so the force exerted is somewhat smaller. Furthermore, to push further than an arm's span you need to clear space to sit up. Time taken to escape before asphyxiating would become a limiting factor.

Finally, I want to mention that Mythbuster's tried it, and found that they could escape from two feet with effort. At six feet, there was no chance. Mythbuster's tried it.

  • Great answer. I wonder if the increased adrenaline in such circumstances would have a significant impact? – Sonny Ordell Feb 10 '12 at 19:05
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    It's worth noting that mythbusters tested escaping from a buried coffin, while "a grave" can include coffins, caskets, or no enclosure at all. – Fake Name Feb 11 '12 at 5:08
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    I'd just like to point out that asphyxia and the weight/pressure of the dirt on you will be the biggest challenge, not just the digging. In Western Australia (soil science) we use 1.5g/cm3 as our rough estimate of soil weight (or bulk density). Thus one centimetre of soil on top of a 180cm tall person 60cm wide would be 16kg of soil. 10 centimetres under the soil and you have 160kg on top of you. By the time you reach a metre you are under 1.6 tonnes of soil. – Tim Scanlon Feb 15 '12 at 9:35
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There was a case in the UK recently of a woman being buried alive and subsequently escaping:

(source - BBC News)

Miss Lewandowska, 27, was attacked with a Taser, bound and gagged and buried under soil, leaves and an 88lb tree branch in woodland near the home she shared with Kasprzak.

She escaped from the box after about an hour by using her engagement ring to cut herself free.

The Daily Telegraph has a picture of the grave:

The pictures show the site where Miss Lewandowska, 27, was buried at least four inches deep along with the three-stone ring she used to cut herself out of the box.

Leeds Crown Court heard on Wednesday that she had been in the box for an hour in total and had been entombed underground for around half-an-hour.

For someone buried under 30 cm of dirt (in a coffin as in Kill Bill):

  • coffin lid approximately 200cm tall and 50cm wide (estimated from viewing film and the height of the actress)
  • total volume of dirt approximately 200 x 50 x 30 = 300,000 cm^3
  • density of soil approximately 1.2 g/cm^3 (source)

That gives roughly 360 kg of soil. That's almost twice the world record for weight lifting for women, so escape seems unrealistic.

  • Without trying to downplay the horrible ordeal the victim was subjected to, four inches of soil isn't enough to address the question. The question has been clarified (thanks, Brian!) to reference dirt at least one foot deep. – Oddthinking Feb 8 '12 at 16:29
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    Not sure how the size of the lid matters, they didn't depict her opening the lid, the showed her punching a hole into it. She wouldn't need to move the entire volume of dirt. – Zoredache Feb 9 '12 at 1:13
  • Legs are stronger than arms that you use while weight lifting. If you don't apply the pressure directly in the middle but at one end of the coffin you can use the other side of the coffin as lever for some of the weight. – Christian Nov 18 '12 at 17:45
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According to Wikipedia, Harry Houdini did, but it was a near thing.

Houdini was buried, without a casket, in a pit of earth six feet deep. He became exhausted and panicky trying to dig his way to the surface and called for help. When his hand finally broke the surface, he fell unconscious and had to be pulled from the grave by his assistants.

Of course, that would have been in a 'grave' that was specifically designed to be escaped from...

  • "Of course, that would have been in a 'grave' that was specifically designed to be escaped from...", then this answer is useless. – George Chalhoub Nov 15 '15 at 15:10

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