“The New York Times
Tuesday, January 19th, 1886
Recently a girl named Collins died here, as it was supposed, very suddenly. A day or two ago the body was exhumed, prior to its removal to another burial place, when the discovery was made that the girl had been buried alive. Her shroud was torn into shreds, her knees were drawn up to her chin, one of her arms was twisted under her head, and her features bore evidence of dreadful torture.”
Caskets are a major part of our everyday lives. For many of us they are the last image we have of our loved ones…..
They are also what we will spend eternity in, and isn’t it strange that we tend to wait until after we die before letting our grieving families decide which one to get?
Believe it or not, this is actually a fairly new practice. Up until the 1900s it was common to purchase your coffin ahead of time and store it in your house.
Death was always lurking around the corner in the form of disease, so it was advisable to be prepared.
So how does one pick their afterlife accomadations?
Well, the first step is determining which style you want: a casket, or a coffin.
Depending where you are in the world, these words can refer to different designs.…
Caskets are the predominant choice in Canada and the USA. They are a four sided rectangular body box, with a hinged lid. Their name comes from the french word cassette which means a box to house precious goods.
They are also much more decorative, with accent features like engraved name plates and fancy wood-work and are typically lined on the inside with a gaudy abundance of fabric and cushions.
Caskets come in two main styles known as a full couch and ar half couch. The full couch means the entire lid lifts as one piece, and the half couch, means the lid opens in two parts independently of one another. The upper body portion is often longer than the lower body, generally stopping just above the knee.
The half couch is what most people think about when they picture an open casket funeral or visitation ceremony.
Caskets came into fashion some time in the late 19th century, due to the USA not yet having an established wood-working industry on the same level as Europe . The simpler four-sided design allowed them to be produced at a faster rate, and were cheaper than imported pieces from the UK. It was these new caskets that helped create the modern funeral industry.
The new design also helped distance people from their long held associations of death from historical events like the Civil War.
This period is known as ‘beautification of death’ in America, and it’s pretty much where we still are today as a society.
A coffin on the other hand, is a six sided, or hexagonal shaped box, that begins narrow at the top where the head would be, widens at the shoulders and then tapers in again towards down the legs to the feet.
This style undoubedtly conjures up images of Dracula and long walks through haunted graveyards.
Coffins are generally lightly lined with a nice simple fabric, and are not too over the top in terms of decoration, though some can be quite ornate.
It’s important to note, that in the UK, the word coffin is used to mean ANY burial box, regardless of shape or size, including rectangular.
It’s really only in North America where we make the distinction, so feel free to use the terms interchangably as well.
So, after you’ve crossed the bridge about what design you’d like…..you get to pick your material!
If you are a human, chances are at least one of your relatives has said “when I go, just put me in a pine box”….or something to that effect.
The reality is, pine is very expensive now a days. This is due to it being utilized by other industries, namely, the cabinet industry. Pine is back in fashion for kitchens, and therefore the wood has increased in price.
So it might not be the super economical choice Uncle Frank thinks it is.
Oak is the most popular choice if you are after a solid wood casket. It is sturdy, finishes beautifully and can handle ornate designs. It can also come in a range of colours and finishes.
Walnut and Cherry wood are also popular choices that don’t break the bank, and still look quite sophisticated.
However if you’re looking for the best of the best, there is none other than Mahogany. You can expect to pay well into the thousands for one of these.
Of course, the prices of any casket are nothing to scoff at, so luckily many companies these days offer more affordable options that are a blend of hard woods, veneer or laminate.
I believe there was even a joke about IKEA flat-pack coffins floating around at some point, though its not a bad idea.
Costco certaintly didn’t think so, in 2004 they launched an affordable line of caskets that sent the funeral industry in the USA into a tailspin.
And of course, if wood isn’t your style, other specialty materials are available.
Believe it or not, metal has been used for caskets as long as wood has, the most notable of them being the ‘Fisk Airtight Coffin of Cast or Raised Metal’ patented by Almond Fisk in 1848.
It was declared the most ‘remarkable coffin ever put into widespread use in America’, by Funeral historians, but at the time, consumers found it just downright creepy.
It was shaped like an Egyptian sarcophogas, with a circular glass pane in order to see the deceaseds face. I’ll be sure to add an image of one on instagram so you can take a look.
It’s main selling feature was the fact that is was ‘airtight’ and supposedly stopped the decay process and protected others from disease as it was thought that cholera could spread from a corpse to living people.
Airtight caskets still exist, but it’s more understood now that this can actually intensify certain bacteria and leave nothing behind but a pile of mush. So if you’d rather be a skeleton, make sure you have a little airflow.
Despite attempting to beautify his design with floral patterns, embellishments and fabrics, the public never caught on to Fisk’s masterpiece and he ended up abandoning it.
I wonder what he would think now knowing that his morbid creation is now a prized possession for many American museums.
Despite their interesting origins, metal caskets are still quite popular. The industry boomed and in the 1970s, 2/3s of all caskets were being made from various types of metal, the most expensive being precious metals like gold and bronze.
Other materials that are popular today include, fibreglass and plastic. These are highly customizable while still being affordable. Some people have them shrinkwrapped with photos or flags and even logos of their favourite brands…..which is very American if you ask me.
And of course, for the crystal healer who has everything, there are even gemstone caskets and coffins, who does want an amethyst geode to spend eternity in.
Innovative coffin design didn’t begin and end with Almond Fisk’s creepy sarcophagus either.
Do you suffer from taphophobia? The fear of being buried alive in your casket, like poor little Collins from the start of our episode?
While the majority of us will never have to worry about that happening, the Victorian’s were preoccupied with the idea. These cases are not urban legend, they really did happen, though perhaps not in the vast numbers proposed by story-tellers like Poe.
Death wasn’t always so easily determined. Machines that measure vital signs didn’t exist, and things like comas were widely misunderstood….
What if one day you woke up, and you were six feet under?
Enter the safety coffin. Specially designed coffins that have built in features to ensure you weren’t buried alive.
The first record of a safety coffin comes to us from Germany where the Duke of Ferdinand of Brunswick was buried with an air tube and keys to the lid to help aid in a possible escape. And of course there was a nice little window to let light in so he could see what he was doing.
Spoiler: he’s still there.
1816, Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger created a system of elaborate ropes that were tied to a corpses head and limbs and attached to a bell, in order to alert the night watchman of the cemetery of movement.
While the bell was protected from wind and rain, what Dr. Taberger didn’t anticipate was that decomposition can shift a body causing the alarm to ring.
People were understandably put off by these false alarms and his design fell out of favour.
In 1822, Dr Adolf Gutsmuth of Altmark decided to field test his own safety coffin design, by burying himself alive. He spent several hours down under ground, and is reported to have ate sausages, soup and beer via a tube he had installed.
How many of his spectacular coffins sold remains to be seen, but I suspect quite a few since he had the experience to back up his claims that if was in fact safe.
The most disturbing of designs has to be that of Dr. Timothy Clark Smith, who was buried in New Haven, Vermont at the Evergreen cemetery in 1893.
Dr. Smith had an extreme case of taphophobia which led to the creation of his unusual and horrifying grave.
Inside his tomb, he constructed a set of stairs that could be used to reach the surface, and he insisted that he be buried with a bell in one hand and a breathing tube in his mouth.
Sounds a little eccentric, but not outright creepy right? Well the feature that has kept people talking well into the 21st century, is a glass window he had installed at the surface of his grave. This was so people could occassionally peer in to make sure he was in fact dead….
Due to condensation, you can now only see a few inches below the surface, but at one time it was said you could go and watch the doctors head decompose.
Now, I love a good cemetery stroll, but that is too creepy even for me.
While most of these designs have secured their spot in history, the concept of a safety coffin has not, and you can still buy them today.
In 1995 a man named Fabrizio Caselli completed the work on his version. It contains an emergency alarm, a two way intercom, flashlight, oxygen tank, heartbeat sensor…and a heart stimulator, you know, in case you need to give yourself a little boost.
I can’t help but think about Collins and what may have happened to her if her parents had invested in a safety coffin. What sort of woman would she have grown into?
While we may never know how many people were actually buried alive, I think Chopin said it best with his supposed last words: “Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won’t be buried alive.”
This has been the memento mori oracle podcast. Be sure to come back next Sunday for the second half of our casket episode where we head to Edinburgh to talk about the mysterious Arthur’s Seat 17.
Special thanks to Ben Hauck who played the NY times reporter at the start of the episode.
For info on how to hire Ben or to grab show-notes and a script of this episode, head to blackandthemoon.com