Friday, August 10, 2012

History of Coffins & Caskets

Old Coffin
The word coffin comes from the Old French cofin and from the Latin cophinus, which translates into basket. The word was first used in the English language in 1380.  A coffin is defined as a box or chest for the display/burying of a corpse. When used to transport the deceased, a coffin may also be referred to as a pall.


King Tut
Coffins have been used since ancient Egypt when a body was mummified and placed in a sarcophagus before being buried in pyramids.  In Europe, around 700, the Celts began fashioning burial boxes with flat stones.  But the majority of people throughout time have been buried wrapped in a shroud, or in a wooden box.

Wooden Coffin
Wooden Casket
A casket is defined as a fancy coffin by Merriam-Webster. The word casket is used mainly in North America; a casket has four sides, a top and bottom, (rectangular shaped.) A coffin has six sides, with a top and bottom, (hexagonal shaped.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne
As Nathaniel Hawthorne put it in 1863, “Caskets! A vile modern phrase, which compels a person ... to shrink ... from the idea of being buried at all.”

Civil War Dead
Casket Company
During the Civil War, so many coffins were needed to transport the dead that the mass production of coffins began and the casket industry developed by the late 19th century.

Iron Coffins
Gold Casket
Coffins/caskets have been made from wood, cast iron, steel, fiberglass, glass, bamboo, wicker, wool, even gold. Ornamental trim could be carved from whalebone, elephant ivory or precious metals.

Reusable Coffin
Joseph II
In 1784, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II declared that reusable coffins were to be used in order to save wood.  The coffins were equipped with a trap door on the bottom that would drop the body into the hole and allow the coffin to be pulled back up and used for another funeral.  Due to public outcry, the law was cancelled within the first six months.

Cast Iron  Coffin
1850 Cast Iron Coffin
Cast-iron coffins were made from the 1850’s through the 1870’s.  Almond Fisk patented the first cast-iron casket in 1848.  It was shaped like a sarcophagus, weighed over 300 pounds, and cost up to $100. Wooden coffins sold for $1 to $3.00, (around $40 to $60 today.) Unfortunately, Fisk’s manufacturing building burned to the ground in 1849.  Fisk died in 1850, penniless, having mortgaged his patented rights to John G. Forbes in order to get loans to continue building his metallic burial boxes. Forbes and his family restructured the company, changed the name, and continued making the metallic burial cases until 1888 when the company folded.

U.S. Grant
Grant's Iron Casket
But metal coffins had caught on with wealthy families.  The affluent purchased them to deter grave robbers. In 1885 General Ulysses S. Grant was buried in an iron casket that was created in New York.

Casket with Escape System
Rope Attached to Bell
The fear of being buried alive was rampant in the late 1700 and 1800’s.  This was due in part to the cholera epidemic and rumors of live burials that had occurred.  Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Premature Burial” didn’t help matters.  In response to these fears a safety coffin was developed.  The coffin would include a mechanism that allowed the occupant to signal that s/he had been buried alive.  Usually it was a cord attached to a bell.

Wooden Coffin
Steel Casket
At the turn of the 20th Century, wooden caskets were still the most popular.  But by the 1960’s, steel casket production had grown to 50% of the market.  By the 1970’s, nearly two-thirds of all caskets were metal.  Today, it is mainly stainless steel caskets that are used. Caskets are available in 16 – 18 – 19 (a combination of 18 & 20 gauge) – 20 and 22-gauge steel.  Metal coffins can also be made in bronze and copper.  The less expensive metal caskets are made of the higher gauge of stainless steel.

Cloth Covered Casket
Cloth covered caskets are made from pressed wood, softwoods or corrugated fiberboard.  Caskets that are cloth covered and less expensive than hardwood or steel caskets.

Oak Casket
Maple Casket
With the interest in cremation growing, and the beliefs of many religious groups, wooden coffins continue to have a place in our burial traditions.  Hardwood caskets are made of solid wood.  Selected woods include mahogany, walnut, cherry, maple, birch, oak, pine, poplar and willow.  Other wood can also be used such as ash, elm, cedar, and redwood.  A veneer-finished casket is less expensive than one of solid wood.

Steel Gasketed Casket
Hardwood Casket
According to the Casket & Funeral Supply Association of America,, as of 2007, over 1,700,000 caskets were sold.  Of those, over 800,000 were steel gasketed, over 300,000 were hardwood caskets, and just under 200,000 were cloth covered.

Sealing Gaskets
Sealing Gaskets
But remember that regardless of any claim, even if the casket has a gasket that seals, it will not protect the body from decay, or protect the public from disease.  In fact, an airtight coffin can cause the body to liquefy.  A coffin that permits air to pass through, such as a wooden box, allows for skeletal remains.

Wine Opener Casket
Guitar Coffin
Coffins/caskets can now be found in a variety of shapes, including musical instruments, cars, and wine corks. (

Cognac Casket

Box of Chocolates Casket
Some are designed to look like a box of chocolates, flowers, even a bottle of cognac. (

Regardless of the type of coffin/casket or lack of burial container, a burial, cremation or committal ceremony is a way for the living to honor the deceased.  It is a chance to say a final goodbye and pay tribute to a life well lived.  And that is what truly matters.

~ Joy


  1. You're a taphophile or lover of things to do with cemeteries, funerals, tombstones, burial rites, etc. From the Greek for tomb lover or fan, like an Anglophile is a fan of everything English

  2. Such an interesting post. I do wonder if anyone actually escaped friom a safety coffin though.

    Beneath Thy Feet

  3. Thank you all! Nicola, I don't know if anyone really escaped from a safety coffin. Something to look into....

  4. I'm wondering if there will be an Iron Coffin for Magaret Thatcher....she was the Iron Lady after all!

  5. Think she eventually went in a metal coffin but not of iron!
    Quite an intriguing thought though, Seawitch Artist! I've made a wooden job for yours truly in old salvaged pine! Shouldn't be too long before it is needed (76 now).

  6. Marget Thatcher long as the lid was safely sealed ..she wont escape

  7. Hi!

    Interesting blog, thank you! I was wondering if you would have sources of the this information, informant somewhere? I'm working on my thesis, and I would like to read more and refer to this history of coffins.

    Elina Nikkanen

    1. Sorry to be so late in replying, Elina but here are a couple of books that may be of interest to you:
      • Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial by Penny Colman
      • The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial (Oxford Handbooks) by Sarah Tarlow and Liv Nilsson Stutz

      Both are available on Amazon. Hope that helps ...

  8. Interesting. I have always wondered why we are put in boxes to be buried instead of just wrapped in a cloth and put in a hole in the ground. Coffins in the USA are thousand of dollars. A big waste of money. Six feet in the ground in a cardboard box or just wrapped is enough for me. I have no issues being worm food.

  9. I would like information on the Ziegler child's glass top cast iron casket. A friend has one and I am interested in buying it. I need to know how to verify if it is the real deal how to determine age and the value of such an item. Any help would be appreciated, thank you

    1. I would suggest contacting the Smithsonian Museum to see what they could offer you in the way of assistance or suggestions.

  10. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing Ben!!

  11. One of the most interesting things I've ever read! So cool to find another person as interested in this stuff as me! Thanks for the post!

  12. Glad you enjoyed it, Emma. We even have an official title - Tombstone Tourists.

  13. Thank you for this detailed history of coffins and caskets.

  14. Very awesome Blog you created Thank you so much for sharing this blog.
    Christian Funeral