The intent is for the coffin to remain in the ground, but they can come up because of:
- Becoming loose
- A construction project
- Family wishes
- Put in the wrong place
- Medical or legal
- Retrieve goods with the body
- Coffin is only rented for show
- Grave robbers take the coffin
A Coffin May Naturally Come Loose From the Ground
How a casket stays in the ground depends on the location of the burial. The following conditions determine what measures cemeteries take to keep a coffin in the ground. These include the makeup of the soil, the depth of the water table, and the frequency of local weather (especially flooding). These standards also determine what measures a cemetery may take to ensure that a coffin stays where it should.
Through the years, there have been stories of coffins rising from where they were buried. Though it may seem like the plot of a horror movie, there are perfectly natural reasons why this may happen. The professionals who own and manage cemeteries have worked hard to develop ways to prevent such occurrences, and they are rare now.
Areas with heavy clay soil, light sandy soil that tends to shift, and areas where there is frequent flooding and has a high water table all need unique methods for keeping coffins deep where they belong.
One standard method for preventing a coffin from moving from its place in the ground is to put a cement liner, which is called a crypt, in the hole to hold the casket. It is often reinforced with rebar and holds the coffin in place, preventing shifting over time. This method can also be used to hold more than one casket.
Another method, often used in areas with a high water table and frequent flooding, is to build a cement structure above the ground to hold the casket. These are also called crypts. The cemeteries of New Orleans are known for using this method.
Some areas build mausoleums, which are structures built above ground to hold dozens of coffins. Big cities often use these when there is not enough land for individual graves in the ground.6 Mausoleums are specifically built to handle multiple burials and yet not have any of the tell-tale signs of decay such as smell or leakage even though they are above ground.
There Are Also Intentional Reasons for a Coffin Not Staying Buried
As strange as it sounds, there are situations when a casket may not be left in peace. Sometimes there are good reasons for digging up what was meant to stay buried.
There are five reasons why a coffin may be dug up.
1, A construction project: Sometimes building plans interfere with cemetery placement, and then the graves need to be moved.
2, If a family moves and wishes to take their deceased loved one with them.
3, If the grave was put in the wrong place.
4, For medical or legal purposes. Such as in the event of a suspected foul-play or the need for DNA.
5, There is a need to retrieve grave goods. Sometimes something, such as jewelry, may be buried with a body, and the family may wish to retrieve it.
Rental Caskets Are for Show and Not Put in the Ground
Another reason a coffin may not stay in the ground is that it was not meant to. Some families choose to ‘rent’ a casket. They may do this for various reasons. One reason people may rent a casket is to save money. A rental can cost four times less than buying one.13 Another is to help the environment.
When a rental casket is used, the inside is lined with a removable wood box that will hold the remains. At no time will the rental casket itself be in contact with a body. The rental casket is used during the viewing of the body. Then the wood liner is removed from the rental casket, and only the liner and its contents are buried.
Rental caskets may also be used if the family has chosen cremation of the body, still wishes to have a viewing of the body but will not be burying the ashes in the casket. Again, the rental casket is used to hold a liner with the remains during the viewing. Afterward, the liner and its contents are cremated and given to the family.
Grave Robbers Take the Coffin out of the Ground
Sometimes a coffin does not stay buried when it should have because of grave robbery. Often people bury their loved ones with valuable possessions such as jewelry. Throughout history, unscrupulous people have taken advantage of this fact and stolen whatever they can from unguarded gravesites.
In modern times, most grave robbing has been eradicated. Coffins are sealed to prevent opening. Cement vaults can also prevent the opening of a grave. Cemeteries also have security to prevent thefts.
Historical Reasons for a Coffin Not Staying in the Ground
A historical reason why a coffin may not have stayed buried was an invention called a ‘safety coffin’. In times past, there was a genuine fear of being buried alive. This became such a widespread phobia that it was even given a name: taphophobia.
Medical tests to determine death were not as sensitive as they are today. Due to cases where people were found to be alive after being assumed dead, ingenious inventors built and even sold coffins that had devices where if a person was revived after being buried, they could signal to be saved. The most common of these was a device that reached down from the surface and allowed the person to ring a bell, indicating that they were still alive and needed to be saved.
Though the fear of
being buried alive was widespread and many patents
have been issued over the years for ‘safety coffins‘
, there are
no valid accounts of them being used to actually bury someone, alive or dead.11
Today, the threat of being buried alive is a memory as we have better ways to determine death, and even if a mistake is made, most bodies are embalmed. Embalming is a process that replaces the bodily fluids with chemicals that aid in the preservation of the remains, and the process would undoubtedly weed out anyone still alive.
Methods Used to Dig up Coffins
There are two methods of digging up a coffin:
1, Disinterment: when a casket is dug up and moved but remains sealed shut.
2, Exhumation: The coffin removed from its burial place and is opened.
Each method requires approval from the following: the local court, the cemetery where the grave is, the owner of the burial plot, and the next of kin of the deceased.
There are instances where the local court can override any dissent, but these cases are quite rare. Society considers exhumation to be a traumatizing event for the family. It is used only when all other options have been exhausted and generally with the support of the family.
Coffin vs. Casket
Coffins and caskets are the same thing for the same purpose. The only difference is their shape. A coffin is smaller at the bottom where the feet would rest.1 The style you usually see in a horror movie is a perfect example of one.
A casket is rectangular and is the more commonly used style in the United States. Until the mid 19th century, ‘coffin’ was the term widely used in America.
Funeral directors decided to use a softer word to help grieving families. So they adopted the name ‘casket,’ which referred to a jewelry box at the time. They intended to make people think of securing and caring for their deceased family members as if they were priceless gems. The name stuck and is now the common term used in the United States.2
Since coffins and caskets do the same job, the terms are interchangeable and are used as such in this article.
If a coffin is intended to stay in the ground, it certainly should. Industry professionals have worked hard and come up with ingenious ideas over the years, many of which we still use to make sure that when a loved one is put in their final resting place, they are safe and remain there. No one should have to worry that their final goodbye is not final.
Writer: Heather F Sylaj
I am a professional writer who has had too much experience with death and planning funerals. I have had pprofessional positions where I was working closely with funeral directors and assisting in planning services.
I reside in Wisconsin with my husband with whom I have found a second chance of happiness with after being widowed at the age of 34. I am happy, in the midst of my grief, that I can share my knowledge and experience to help others going through such difficult times.