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Coffin History

January 23rd, 2021    Author:

If you think about funerals, one of the first things that comes to mind is no doubt a coffin. Coffins have been around for thousands of years and nowadays they are available in various different materials and styles – from the traditional wood to the more eco-friendly willow or even cardboard. In fact, coffins have had a very interesting history from the start.

Where does the word ‘coffin’ come from?

The Old French word ‘cofin’ (meaning ‘basket’) officially entered the English language as ‘coffin’ in 1380. There is also a Modern French form ‘couffin’, which translates as ‘casket’. Whilst any box holding the deceased is called a coffin, a casket was originally a box used to store jewellery. It is thought that ‘casket’ was originally used as a euphemism by undertakers to steer away from the unpleasant images of a coffin.

When were coffins first used?

The earliest evidence of coffin remains ever found date back to 5000BC in China.  Among the remains were said to be a coffin belonging to a child and as many as 10 other wooden coffins at another site. Back then, the thickness of the coffin illustrated the level of nobility of the person inside; the double coffin consisted of an outer and inner coffin and the triple coffin had two outer and one inner coffins.

How were coffins originally made?

Traditionally, coffins were made as and when required by the village carpenter. So, the way it looked and how it was made would depend on his skills, as well as what materials were available at the time. If a poor person’s funeral had to be paid for by the parish then typically cheaper pine would be used, whereas someone very wealthy might have a yew or mahogany coffin finished with extravagant linings and decorations.

Victorian coffins

As you may well know, the Victorians were rather ‘obsessed’ with death. Funerals were big events and so there would be no expense spared on the coffin for wealthy Victorians – brass handles and luxurious burial shrouds were common. If a coffin was to be placed in a burial vault then they would usually consist of three layers, one of which would be lead, making the coffins extremely heavy.

In fact, back in 2014, a former Victorian coffin factory in Birmingham was reopened as a museum. The Newman Brothers made Winston Churchill’s coffin and when the factory was rediscovered in the last decade it was like a time warp with vintage tools and old newspapers still lying around.

More unusual coffins

Last year we blogged about ‘funeral customs from around the world’ and talked about the unusual coffins made in Ghana. Out there, funerals are often a much more colourful affair, a celebration of life rather than sorrow, and this is reflected in their coffin designs. They aspire to be buried in coffins that represent something special in their life – a hobby, their work or something symbolic to them.

Ghanaian artist Paa Joe says: “As humans, death is part of our life and everyone must go in style.” One of his coffins, modelled on a Mercedes Benz, is housed at The National Museum of Scotland. Carved from wood and painted white with silver, black and orange details, the coffin (made in 1998) features silver headlights, wing mirrors, an aerial and the trademark Mercedes-Benz badge.

Here in the UK, cardboard coffins are becoming increasingly popular and some follow a similar theme to the Ghanaian sense of humour. You can get ones with ‘return to sender’ stickers on, ones with your own photos on and themed ones from James Bond to Halloween!

The coffins we know today

Nowadays, most coffins are mass-produced, which does mean there are lots of options available to suit individual requirements. Here at Austin’s our Hertingfordbury, Kimpton and Amwell coffins are all worked on by hand by highly skilled craftsmen and we can provide beautiful ornaments too, including a: Gothic Cross, Sacred Heart, Crucifix, Masonic, Rose and Scottish Tassel.

For those who’d like a biodegradable coffin for their loved one we have a choice of two coffins. The Datchworth is handmade from English willow gathered in Lancashire. It is expertly fashioned by craftsmen using traditional skills and weaving techniques passed down through generations. The Bramfield is made with sturdy recycled paper in a green finish with natural rope handles.

To see our full range of coffins please visit: http://www.austins.co.uk/coffins.html


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