When someone passes away, the usual tradition in the West is to bury them in a coffin. Some people might prefer other methods, but the coffin remains a definite fixture in our culture. We’ve seen bio-degradable coffins, huge fancy coffins that cost a fortune, or the simplest wooden structures that get the job done. In fact, coffins are even used as props for Halloween decorations and parties.
A coffin is actually a funerary box, and it is has been used for centuries past in various forms. No matter the civilization and the time when was used, a coffin has always had the same purpose, i.e. to act as a container for preserving the body of the loved ones as they pass away to the next world.
While coffins might vary in size, shape, and type in different cultures, religions, and countries, the basic concept remains the same. With this level of importance, it’s essential that we find out more about the history of the coffin. This why we’ve covered some of the more interesting facts about these funerary boxes below:
The Origin of the Word
The word ‘coffin’ derives from the Greek language, where it used to be called “kophinos”. Taken literally, this word actually means ‘basket’.
However, later on, it has been said that the word was derived from the French “cofin”. In North America, there is made a distinction between coffins and caskets, with coffins being hexagonal (with six sides), and caskets having a rectangular shape (with four sides).
There has been solid evidence of coffins playing a large role even in ancient civilizations. Looking at each of these in turn will reveal some of the cultural practices surrounding death, the afterlife, and funerals for each era.
Tutankhamen’s Golden Coffin
Among the most famous coffins in the world is Tutankhamen’s gold coffin. Even in Ancient Egypt, when important human bodies were mummified using a long and thorough process, coffins were very much in use. Tutankhamen’s body was one of them, as he was emperor in his time. That familiar golden casket with the life-size image on the lid is well-known throughout the world.
In some very rare historical situations, there were some caskets made entirely of gold. There are a few important figures who have been buried in golden coffins, such as Alexander the Great, Buddha, and Cyrus the Great. The ancient Egyptians have also used golden coffins in order to entomb the Pharaohs. These coffins can usually be found in the museums, next to other artifacts that have been found in their tombs.
Wood is the most common material used for coffins to date, but caskets have also been made from cast iron, fiberglass, steel, or even wool. In 1784, the Roman Emperor Joseph II decided to utilize reusable coffins in order to save wood. Therefore, the coffins were built with a trap door that would open at the bottom, making it possible to drop the body directly into the grave.
After this, the coffin used to be pulled back up, being saved for another time. However, this situation didn’t last for a long time, as the mourners were understandably frustrated by this somewhat disrespectful act. As a result, reusable coffins were soon abolished.
Cast-Iron Coffins in the 19th Century
Some of the most beautiful and unusual caskets to date have been made out of cast-iron. Cast-iron caskets have been made since 1850, though they were always less popular and more expensive than the wooden ones. They were and are mostly preferred by wealthy families, who want to make sure that no one would rob their loved ones’ graves.
Of course, cast-iron caskets are also very heavy, which would again make sure that any thief will think twice about simply carting it away. This meant that the funeral costs for such a casket will go way up, as there’s more labor involved in carrying a whole box made of that material.
While most people still prefer a simple, unadorned casket or coffin, there are several others who want some type of decoration for the final farewell of their loved ones.
The style and adornment of a casket can vary from a plain, unstained wooden “box” to ornately adorned with jewels, beautiful carvings and much more. The agreements can be extended to the burial ground itself, varying from a simple grave to an ornate mausoleum.
During the 1700s and 1800s, people began to fear that they might possibly be buried alive or inexplicably wake from the dead. These fears were probably brought about by similar incidents, where a person presumed dead would suddenly wake up just in time.
There were also some chilling events, such as a grave being dug up for moving the body to another place, only to find scratch marks on the coffin lid. It was presumed that the ‘deceased’ had woken up under the ground and attempted to get out of the coffin before suffocating to death.
In order to calm these fears, a coffin was invented that also came with a bell. Therefore, if a person happened to wake up in a coffin, he could ring the bell and hopefully be heard by someone who could rescue them.
Another practice that evolved in certain cultures was to tie one end of a string to the dead person’s finger, then tie the other end to a bell that was positioned just over the grave. If the person awoke, they just had to move their finger in order to make the bell ring.
Coffins in the Modern Era
We’ve come a long way from the ancient civilizations mentioned above. With technology progressing as rapidly as it is, we now have some advanced options such as a Windows-powered casket. However, most people will probably not be able to consider one of these, especially not for one-time use.
Nowadays, there are many people who prefer stainless steel coffins. This choice makes sense, as such coffins are more reliable and long-lasting than wooden options. However, the most popular coffin material is still wood, though it might be available in several types and price ranges.
Reading Up on Burial
If the discussion about coffins has piqued your interest, you might want to find a few books on the subject as well. A good place to start is “Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial” by Penny Colman. You can take a peek inside and place an order here:
This book is the result of some thorough research in the fields of history and anthropology, with personal accounts, interviews, and other information sources featured inside. With this research, Colman has examined the concept of death and the resulting burial across several societies and cultures.
Written in a conversational tone, this work also stops shy of being morbid. It contains stories that are both enlightening yet humorous. There are also details about funeral-related questions that you might not even have thought to ask, such as how long it would take for an adult body to decompose without a coffin.
If you want to learn more about the different customs regarding human remains, this book is a must-have. Check out a list of burial sites for famous people, find out the corpse-turning season in certain areas, and have a look at the most interesting gravestone carvings. The subject might be a difficult one, but the author here makes it a deeply fascinating one.
Coffins are inextricably connected with death in many cultures and have been so for a long, long time. The process a body goes through is also important, whether it’s bathing, embalming, or otherwise preparing for burial in some manner. It’s certainly an interesting practice to go through the history of coffins and see how things have changed. This will also open our eyes to the practices today, and help us see which might be the best option for ourselves and our loved ones.