Coffins and Caskets: A Short History

Coffins have been around for such a long time. They have a long history, something which a lot of people are not aware of. The word coffin comes from the Latin word cophinus and the old French word cofin. Both words translate into basket. A coffin is defined as a box for the display and burying of a corpse. It can also be referred to as a pall.

Coffins have been in use since the time of the ancient Egyptians when they place mummies inside sarcophagi before putting them inside pyramids. In Europe, coffins were used as early as 700 B.C.. it was the Celts who made burial boxed by using flat stones. However, most people during that time were buried wrapped in a shroud or in wooden boxes.

Coffin typesA casket, on the other hand, is defined by dictionaries today as nothing but a fancy coffin. The word casket is mainly used in North America. It is a rectangular-shaped box with four sides, a top and a bottom. A coffin has 6 sides, a top and a bottom and it is hexagonal in shape.

Emperor Joseph II issued a decree in 1784 that coffins were to be reused to help conserve wood.  In order to make this possible, coffins were built with trap doors on the bottom where the body can be dropped into the hole and allow the coffin to be reused. However, there was public outcry over this so the law was cancelled within the first 6 months.

Casket/Coffin Materials

Coffins and caskets have been made from different materials. Some of the most popular materials for caskets and coffins are wood, fiberglass, cast iron, steel, bamboo, glass, and even gold. Wealthy people often decorate their coffins and caskets with precious materials such as precious stones, gold and silver.

The cast iron coffin was used from the 1850s to the 1870s and the first patented cast iron was made by Almond Fisk. It weighed over 300 pounds and was shaped like a sarcophagus. Wood coffins were more in demand with people who had limited means as it was a lot cheaper. However, metal coffins caught on with the rich and wealthy. Affluent families purchased to deter would-be grave robbers. The famous General Ulysses Grant was even buried in an iron casket created in New York.

Fear of Being Buried Alive

Taphophobia or the fear of being buried alive was prevalent in the late 1700s to 1800s. This was in part because of the cholera epidemic and talk that people were being buried alive. To help quell people’s fears, caskets and coffins were made with a mechanism which allowed the person buried to signal to the outside world that he or she is still alive. A cord attached to a bell was the simplest of these mechanisms.

With the huge interest that cremation is getting, wooden coffins continue to be very popular today. Some of the most popular woods used for making caskets and coffins today are mahogany, oak, birch, pine, willow, poplar and walnut.