Burial - coffins and caskets

The word coffin is the general term for the receptacles in which a corpse is buried. Many people use the terms coffin and casket interchangeably. To the funeral industry, however, they are two different things.

Mummy Case

 © Australian Museum

Coffins

The word coffin is the general term for the receptacles in which a corpse is buried. Most commonly this refers to the eight-sided wooden box tapered to fit the human body (wider at the head and shoulders and then narrower at the feet). Coffins however have been fashioned in many different ways over time and out of many different media.

The ancient Greeks and Romans disposed of their dead both by burial and by cremation. Greek coffins were typically made of burnt clay, urn-shaped; hexagonal, or triangular, with the body arranged in a sitting posture.

Stone coffins were used in the Christian era and Romans who were rich enough had their coffins made of a limestone, which was commonly believed to 'eat away ' the body.

Chaldean coffins were clay urns; from the size of the mouth it is apparent that these coffins were molded and baked around the body.

The Chinese used coffins to bury some of their dead since the Neolithic period (32,000 - 8,000 years ago), sealing the corpses in airtight coffins to help preserve the body. Lady Cheng's burial is an example of this process.

Egyptian coffins, or sarcophagi, were generally highly polished stone and covered with hieroglyphics, telling the history of the deceased. Mummy chests shaped to the form of the body were also used. They were made of hardwood or painted papier-mache; and also bore hieroglyphics.

Rich medieval Europeans use lead coffins shaped like the mummy chests of Egypt. Those who could not afford stone were buried without coffins, wrapped simply in cloth or covered with hay and flowers.

Coffins were a mark of social status and for many centuries in western societies only the noble classes where buried in a coffin. However by the 17th century coffins became usual for all classes, including the poor. Before that time the poor where transported in coffins to the graveyard and then removed and buried in shrouds. The coffin was then returned to the church for reuse. Some of these reusable coffins had hinges on the bottom to allow the body to be dropped out into the grave. These coffins were known as 'slip coffins'.

Among the American Indians some tribes used rough hewn wooden coffins; others sometimes enclosed the corpse between the upper and lower shells of a turtle. In their tree and scaffold burial the Indians sometimes used wooden coffins or travois baskets or simply wrapped the body in blankets. Canoes, mounted on a scaffold near a river, were used as coffins by some tribes, while others placed the corpse in a canoe or wicker basket and floated it out into the stream or lake.

Aboriginal Australians generally used coffins of bark, but some tribes employed baskets of wickerwork or formed wooden coffins from a tree trunk split down the centre and hollowed out.

In the late 19th century it was common for families to take the deceased to a carpenter to have a coffin custom made, and then later some furniture stores also sold coffins.

In the USA nearly 75% of coffins are made of steel and many coffins are lined with copper or zinc presumably to help to preserve the body. Also glass is sometimes used for the lids. Some estimates indicate that approximately 200 million pounds of steel are used in caskets each year.

Coffins used for cremation in most countries these days are made of some light wooden material easily consumed by fire and that yield little ash.

Caskets and coffins do come in different sizes to accommodate all people. A coffin is traditionally 180cm long x 61cm high x 61cm wide.

Jewish coffins

Deceased Jews must be buried not cremated. According to Jewish tradition, the deceased should be reunited with the soil as soon as possible. Jewish coffins are typically painted wood with rope handles and wooden pegs, and will be constructed without any metal. Holes are drilled in the base of the coffin to allow the body to connect with the earth. All Jews - rich or poor - are buried in the same kind of coffin. The belief is that all people are born, and should die, exactly the same way.

Caskets

Many people use the terms coffin and casket interchangeably. To the funeral industry, however, they are two different things. A casket is different from a coffin in that it is a rectangle shape that is not tapered to the body. The lid of a casket is usually hinged so it can be opened. Caskets are most commonly used when there will be a viewing of the deceased. Caskets can be quite elaborate and are usually lined with velvet, crepe or taffeta. An increasing trend is for caskets to be personalised with the deceased memorabilia (photos and mementos).

Some cultures do not allow for any personalisation or elaborate features. For instance Jewish traditional law specifies that the dead should be buried in plain wooden coffins with no metal parts or adornment.

Cemeteries

The word cemetery comes from the Greek koimeterion and the Latin coemetrium words for sleeping chamber. In many cultures it was illegal to bring the dead into their cities. In ancient Rome only people of the highest ranks were allowed to be buried within the cities walls. Ancient Greeks on the other hand buried their dead within their homes.


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