Caskets are a common purchase that many families make when planning a loved one’s burial. So where did caskets originate, and how did they become so popular?
What is a Casket?
A casket is an enclosed burial vessel for human remains. While the terms “coffin” and “casket” have sometimes been used interchangeably throughout history, we now generally define a “coffin” as having six sides (a hexagonal shape tapered at the head and feet), and a “casket” as a rectangular, slightly larger vessel which has become the predominant shape in the U.S. today.
Caskets in the Ancient World
Throughout time, humans have instinctively and ritualistically buried their deceased relatives and friends. Even before the advent of organized religion, there is evidence of ritualistic burials among some of the first human civilizations.
Scientific researchers and archaeologists have uncovered ancient Mesopotamian burial vessels made of cloth, wood, and paper. Ancient Egyptian kings and major political figures were buried in large, ornate caskets known as sarcophaguses.
Around the year AD 700, the Celts in the British Isles started using flat stones to build caskets for their dead. Over subsequent centuries, several major religions started gaining tremendous influence, each with their own ideals and customs for burial.
Evolution of Caskets Into What We Know Today
The first caskets were technically simple coffins with detachable lids. Those performing the burial rite would secure the lid of the coffin and then inter it in the Earth at a burial site. Over time, the coffin evolved into the casket as we know it today.
The evolution of coffins resulted from a desire to show more respect toward the dead. In the 1600s and early 1700s, only the wealthiest members of society had their burials in coffins, and even then most coffins were very simple hexagonal wooden boxes.
Over time, people started to want more ornate burial vessels to symbolize their social standing and wealth. Others believed the burial rite to be a sacred religious ritual that requires only the best possible vessel for the deceased.
Eventually, simple coffins gradually made way for rectangular hinged-lidded caskets. By the beginning of the 20th Century, caskets had completely overtaken coffins as the burial vessel of choice in the United States.
Modern Industrialization of Caskets
The modern casket industry that exists in the U.S. today began to take shape in the early 1800s, when local furniture and cabinet makers also served as undertakers (and vice versa). There was no mass production of caskets at the time--they were made by hand as needed.
All that began to change during the Civil War in the 1860s, when caskets began to be mass-produced to meet the demands of war-related fatalities. Thus, the modern casket industry was born, with a number of businesses shifting their primary focus to casket production. The local undertaker stopped making caskets and started focusing more on the death-care side of the business, and procuring the caskets from one of the specialized casket producers.
It was also around this time when steel caskets, which are the most common type used today, made their debut in the marketplace. However, steel wouldn’t take hold as the predominant material of choice for caskets until after WWII.
The rise of industrialization also brought about changes to the styling of caskets over the decades, with caskets becoming more ornate and grand to honor the dead. For example, instead of simple wooden boards and rope handles for transporting the bodies within, caskets began to feature solid bars running along each side so pallbearers can more easily transport a deceased person for burial “with dignity.”
A typical casket used in a funeral today is a painted steel casket with brass hardware and trim. Yet a small, growing trend in caskets and burials today alludes back to the early days of pre-industrial coffins and caskets. Green burials forgo the modern steel casket in favor of wood, wicker, cloth, or other materials that were more common in years past. As the casket industry continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see the direction it takes in the future.