Today, we use coffins to:
- Protect the body from scavengers and grave robbers
- Transport and display the body
- Protect funeral workers from potential communicable diseases
- Slow decomposition and decay of the body
- Create a peaceful resting place for the deceased
Why We Use Coffins
Coffins and caskets have been used throughout human history. They are still used today because they are both practical for the funeral home and cemetery, and comforting for the loved ones of the deceased.
The main purposes of caskets and coffins include:
1. To Protect the Body:
Historically, bodies that were buried were susceptible to both animal scavengers and grave robbers. Caskets help to protect bodies from both types of predation. Coffins were created with materials that blocked access to animal scavengers and features designed to deter or prevent grave robbing.
This added security gives loved ones the peace of knowing that the deceased will not be disturbed.
2. To Transport and Display the Body:
Many caskets have been designed to be utilized at both the viewing or open-casket funeral and the burial.
The ornate and hardy design, along with the convenient handles, allows the casket to be easily transported and displayed. This added layer of protection and comfort for the deceased can be an added layer of comfort for the family as they grieve.
3. To Protect Public Health:
If a person died of a communicable disease, the use of a coffin can reduce the chance of others contracting the illness.
Though caskets are not airtight and still must be handled with caution, they provide an extra layer of protection for those individuals that prepare the body and perform the funeral rites.
4. To Preserve the Body:
A casket isolates the body from many of the elements, thereby slowing the effects of decomposition and decay. This modicum of preservation can be comforting for the loved one of the deceased.
5. To Honor the Deceased:
We tend to refer to burial as someone’s “final resting place.” This terminology can help us to find comfort as we grieve.
A casket that is beautifully made and lined with soft fabric helps create the impression of a peaceful resting place. The idea of burying a loved one in a comfortable coffin tends to feel far more respectful than simply placing them in the ground.
Coffins and caskets have been used for burials throughout human history. We use them both for the practical benefits they provide for the deceased and for the emotional comfort they provide for the grieving. However, as cremation continues to cause our funeral systems to evolve, it is likely that our relationship with caskets will evolve as well.
Coffins for Cremation
Burial containers are required for cremations in most funeral homes in the United States. In practice, a burial container is not necessary for cremation. However, most funeral homes required some sort of burial container because:
- It makes transportation of the deceased easier and more respectful.
- Most cremators require that the body be placed on a solid, flat surface to be safely maneuvered into the machine.
In the United States, cremation burial containers are typically one of the following:
Caskets are the most common burial container for cremations. Caskets are typically utilized because they can be used for the funeral or viewing ceremony, as well as the cremation.
2. Alternative Containers:
Alternative containers are a cheap alternative to a full casket. They are typically the shape and size of a casket but are much simpler in design. Alternative containers can be made of a variety of materials, including unfinished wood, cardboard, fiberboard, or composition materials.
Overall, anything can serve as a cremation burial container as long as it is fully combustible, rigid with a solid, flat base, leak-proof, and covered.
All about Coffins and Caskets
In the United States, the terms “casket” and “coffin” are frequently used interchangeably. However, they are not the same:
Coffins are six-sided burial containers. They are six-sided to allow them to be widest at the shoulders and then taper towards the feet to reflect the shape of the person buried inside.
Caskets are rectangular, four-sided burial containers. Caskets are the more common burial container in the United States and are typically considered a more modern option.
Today, coffins and caskets are made of a variety of different materials, including:
Wooden caskets are made of various soft and hardwoods, including Mahogany, Walnut, Cherry, Maple, Oak, Pine, Poplar, and Veneer.
Metal caskets are constructed from bronze, copper, carbon steel, or stainless steel. Most metal caskets are fitted with a rubber gasket to further protect the body of the deceased from the elements.
- Particle Board/Cloth:
Particle board and cloth caskets are a highly economical alternative to the more expensive wood and metal options. Particle board/cloth caskets are used primarily for cremations.
The interior of the coffins and caskets are commonly lined with crepe or velvet fabric. Most caskets will also come with a built-in raised pillow for the deceased’s head.
Casket lids come in two styles: half couch and full couch.
Full couch refers to a lid that is one solid piece.
Half couch refers to a lid that is split into two pieces. This allows the upper body of the deceased to be displayed while the lower body is covered. This type of lid is more popular in the United States, especially for open-casket funerals.
History of Coffin Use
Burying the deceased is not a new trend. Scientists have discovered evidence that humans were performing intentional burials at least 130,000 years ago. The first evidence of humans being buried in coffins occurred in China in 5000 B.C. (over 7,000 years ago).
Evidence of the use of coffins has been found throughout the world and throughout human history. Some cultures buried all of their deceased in coffins, while others reserved coffins for the noble class.
Coffins have ranged from the simple wooden coffins of ancient China, to the elaborate sarcophagi used by ancient Egyptians. No matter what culture you look at, one fact remains constant: coffins are not a new trend.
In the United States, wooden caskets were historically made my local cabinet and furniture makers who doubled as undertakers. During the Civil War, thousands of caskets were needed to transport dead soldiers, so caskets began to be mass-produced.
In the 1840s, Dr. Almond Fisk created the first steel caskets. He claimed that the new steel caskets were airtight and indestructible.
In 1847, state legislators passed the Rural Cemetery Act, which allowed for the establishment of the country’s first nondenominational for-profit cemetery corporations. This bill paved the way for the establishment of the casket industry.
By the early 1920s, Batesville Casket Company began mass-producing metal caskets. However, casket making was halted in the 1940s to conserve metal and wood for the war effort. Caskets during this time were instead made of cloth-covered cardboard.
At the end of World War II, metal and wood caskets were once again mass-produced, and the casket industry rapidly expanded. According to the Casket & Funeral Supply Association of America (CFSA), by the early 1950s, there were over 700 casket manufacturers in the United States.
However, decades of consolidation caused the number of casket manufacturers to decrease. Today, less than a dozen manufacturers assemble more than 90% of all metal caskets in the United States. Two industry behemoths, Batesville and Matthews International Corporation, control approximately 82% of the market share.
Today, the casket industry in the United States is a $550 million business- one of the largest in the world. In large part, the success of the casket industry is due to the practical and emotional purpose that the casket holds in American funerals.