Throwing handfuls of dirt into graves: who does this?

Hollywood loves this convention: weepy relatives at the funeral line up to throw handfuls of dirt onto the coffin. It’s a touching symbolic gesture, and I can see why Hollywood loves it, but here’s the thing: I’ve attended dozens of funerals (all in the southern US) and I’ve never seen it happen.

So who does this in real life? Is it a regional thing? Or is it a ritual of a particular faith? Can anyone enlighten me?

It’s been a typical practice at family funerals I’ve attended in the New York City area. My family is Irish/German, Roman Catholic.

We did it at my father’s funeral a couple of years ago. That was a Catholic service. It’s common at other Catholic funerals that I have attended as a mourner, or at which I have sung.

A search indicates it is also a custom at Jewish funerals.

This link mentions its use by Catholics.

Ah. OK, thanks for the info.

I’ve not seen it done by the mourners, but at an Anglican funeral service, the priest will often throw in some dust, after reading the passage about “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

The practice was set out in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer:

I was ten years old when my Father died.

One of my most vivid memories is standing by his grave and being handed a “wand” (someone more up-to-date Catholic than I can likely name this instrument) and being told to sprinkle holy water over the coffin after it was lowered into the grave.

Thereafter, my Mother and all other mourners sprinkled Holy Water over the coffin.
My Mother then took a handful of dirt and dropped it into the grave. She was the only one to do this.

I have always thought that the water was a blessing for the departed and that the dispersal of dirt was symbolic for the widow/widower burying their next of kin.

This is likely an Irish-Catholic custom with which I am familiar.

I suspect the Hollywood thing is more in tune with “instant film clips” and/or “sound bites” than any real custom - though I cannot back this up with citations etc.

We did in in the funerals of both of my parents. Reform Jews.

An aspergillum, from the Latin verb aspergere, “to sprinkle”.

My family throws roses from the coffin blanket (and sometimes children [but not our own]) into the grave after the service but not dirt. At most funerals that I’ve been to there’s an astroturf like carpet that covers all but the open grave and no dirt to toss in.

My parents said that when they were children they didn’t sprinkle dust but went a step further: at some funerals the nearest and dearest picked up a shovel and actually shoveled in a scoop of dirt (not enough to fill the grave of course, but more symbolic). I can see how it would be good for coming to grips with the reality of the death.


Seems you are more observant than I am - an aspergillum is exactly the “wand” I was given. Now that you have named it, so many memories flood back- even that name.

How pharoanic.

At Jewish funerals I’ve attended it went beyond mere handfuls of dirt; mourners were expected to work a shovel.

Same goes for Lutheran funerals in Germany. Everybody is expected to put a shovel full of dirt in the grave.

No children are put in the grave though. :wink:

We did this yesterday - the grave where my great-grandmother’s, grandfather’s, and grandmother’s ashes were interred was opened so we could bury my uncle’s ashes.

Whoever opened the grave placed a stump of wood by it, with a mound of soil on - maybe ten handfuls or so. After we placed my uncle’s ashes in the grave, we all threw a handful of dirt in.

I’m guessing that the cemetery (which is rarely used for new burials) knows that this is done by some religious denominations, so they make sure the option is available.

For my more Orthodox relatives there was shoveling, and a lot of it. For my parents (Reform) there were only token handfuls.

I’ve been to several funerals in the last few years, in different parts of the country (three in Texas and two in Massachusetts). None of them involved actually observing the casket being put into the ground. There was a wake/visitation at the funeral home, service at the church, and a final ceremony at the cemetery. At this point everybody went home.

I’m told that it is thought to be “too traumatic for the family” to actually watch the casket being put into the ground. So no handfuls of dirt, either.

Likewise. Even the frail elderly have gotten up to wield a shovel at the Jewish funerals I’ve been to. I actually like the custom; I feel like it provides closure.

I wasnt paying much attention at my grandfather funeral but we did shovel in part of of the dirt. my family is orthadox and he was reform. baruch hashem I haven’t been to any other lately.

I’m surprised more people don’t. We cremate, but even then the eldest son is supposed to light the pyre. (No, I don’t now what happens if there are no sons.)