A coffin is a funerary box used for viewing or keeping a corpse,
either for burial or cremation.
The word took two different paths, cofin in
Old French originally
meaning basket, became coffin in English and became couffin in modern
French which nowadays means a cradle.[note 1] A distinction is often
made between coffin and casket: the latter is generally understood to
denote a four-sided (almost always rectangular) funerary box, while a
coffin is usually six-sided. However, coffins having a one-piece
side with a curve at the shoulder instead of a join are more commonly
used in the United Kingdom (UK).
4.1 Design coffins in Ghana
7 See also
10 External links
The side of an Ancient Egyptian sarcophagus
First attested in English in 1380, the word coffin derives from the
Old French cofin, from
Latin cophinus, which means a basket, which
is the latinisation of the Greek κόφινος (kophinos),
"basket". The earliest attested form of the word is the Mycenaean
Greek ko-pi-na, written in
Linear B syllabic script.
Any box in which the dead are buried is a coffin, and while a casket
was originally regarded as a box for jewelry, use of the word "casket"
in this sense began as a euphemism introduced by the undertaker's
trade. A distinction is commonly drawn between "coffins" and
"caskets", using coffin to refer to a tapered hexagonal or octagonal
(also considered to be anthropoidal in shape) box and casket to refer
to a rectangular box, often with a split lid used for viewing the
deceased as seen in the picture. Receptacles for cremated and
cremulated human ashes (sometimes called cremains) are called
The earliest evidence of wooden coffin remains, dated at 5000 BC, was
found in the
Tomb 4 at Beishouling, Shaanxi. Clear evidence of a
wooden coffin in the form of a rectangular shape was found in
in an early
Banpo site. The
Banpo coffin belongs to a four-year-old
girl, measuring 1.4 m (4.5 ft) by 0.55 m (1.8 ft)
and 3–9 cm thick. As many as 10 wooden coffins have been found
Dawenkou culture (4100–2600 BC) site at Chengzi,
Shandong. The thickness of the coffin, as determined by the
number of timber frames in its composition, also emphasized the level
of nobility, as mentioned in the Classic of Rites, Xunzi and
Zhuangzi. Examples of this have been found in several Neolithic
sites; the double coffin, the earliest of which was found in the
Liangzhu culture (3400–2250 BC) site at Puanqiao, Zhejiang, consists
of an outer and an inner coffin, while the triple coffin, with its
earliest finds from the
Longshan culture (3000–2000 BC) sites at
Xizhufeng and Yinjiacheng in Shandong, consists of two outer and one
Plain bespoke stone coffin, circa 7th century
A coffin may be buried in the ground directly, placed in a burial
vault or cremated. Alternatively it may be entombed above ground in a
mausoleum, a chapel, a church, or in a loculus within catacombs. Some
countries practice one form almost exclusively, whereas in others it
may depend on the individual cemetery.
A Karo coffin in Northern Sumatra
In part of Sumatra, Indonesia, ancestors are revered and bodies were
often kept in coffins kept alongside the longhouses until a ritual
burial could be performed. The dead are also disinterred for rituals.
Mass burials are also practiced. In northern Sulawesi, some dead were
kept in above ground sarcophagi called waruga until the practice was
banned by the Dutch in the 19th century.
The handles and other ornaments (such as doves, stipple crosses,
crucifix, symbols etc.) that go on the outside of a coffin are called
fittings (sometimes called 'coffin furniture' - not to be confused
with furniture that is coffin shaped) while organising the inside of
the coffin with fabric of some kind is known as "trimming the coffin".
Cultures that practice burial have widely different styles of coffin.
In Judaism, the coffin must be plain, made of wood and contain no
metal parts or adornments. These coffins use wooden pegs instead of
nails. All Jews are buried in the same plain cloth shroud from
shoulder to knees, regardless of status in life, gender or age. In
China and Japan, coffins made from the scented, decay-resistant wood
of cypress, sugi, thuja and incense-cedar are in high demand. Certain
Aboriginal Australian groups use intricately decorated tree-bark
cylinders sewn with fibre and sealed with adhesive as coffins. The
cylinder is packed with dried grasses.
Sometimes coffins are constructed to permanently display the corpse,
as in the case of the glass-covered coffin of the
Haraldskær Woman on
display in the Church of Saint Nicolai in Vejle,
Denmark or the
Vladimir Lenin which is in the
Red Square in Moscow.
When a coffin is used to transport a deceased person, it can also be
called a pall, a term that also refers to the cloth used to cover the
The glass-covered coffin of the Haraldskær Woman.
Coffins are traditionally made with six sides plus the top (lid) and
bottom, tapered around the shoulders, or rectangular with four sides.
Another form of four-sided coffin is trapezoidal (also known as the
"wedge" form) and is considered a variant of the six-sided hexagonal
kind of coffin. Continental Europe at one time favoured the
rectangular coffin or casket, although variations exist in size and
shape. The rectangular form, and also the trapezoidal form, is still
regularly used in Germany, Austria, Hungary and other parts of Eastern
and Central Europe, with the lid sometimes made to slope gently from
the head down towards the foot. Coffins in the UK are mainly similar
to the hexagonal design, but with one-piece sides, curved at the
shoulder instead of having a join. In Medieval Japan, round coffins
were used, which resembled barrels in shape and were usually made by
coopers. In the case of a death at sea, there have been instances
where trunks have been pressed into use as a coffin. Coffins usually
have handles on the side so they will be easier to carry.
They may incorporate features that claim to protect the body or for
public health reasons. For example, some may offer a protective casket
that uses a gasket to seal the casket shut after it is closed for the
final time. In England, it has long been law that a coffin for
interment above ground should be sealed; this was traditionally
implemented as a wooden outer coffin around a lead lining, around a
third inner shell. After some decades have passed, the lead may ripple
and tear. In the United States, numerous cemeteries require a vault of
some kind in order to bury the deceased. A burial vault serves as an
outer enclosure for buried remains and the coffin serves as an inner
enclosure. The primary purpose of the vault is to prevent collapse of
the coffin due to the weight of the soil above.
Some manufacturers offer a warranty on the structural integrity of the
coffin. However, no coffin, regardless of its construction material
(e.g., metal rather than wood), whether or not it is sealed, and
whether or not the deceased was embalmed beforehand, will perfectly
preserve the body. In some cases, a sealed coffin may actually speed
up rather than slow down the process of decomposition. An airtight
coffin, for example, fosters decomposition by anaerobic bacteria,
which results in a putrefied liquefaction of the body, and all
putrefied tissue remains inside the container, only to be exposed in
the event of an exhumation. A container that allows air to pass in and
out, such as a simple wooden box, allows for clean skeletonization.
However the situation will vary according to soil or air conditions,
Coffin of the ancient Egyptian high status priest Khnum-Nakht, from
Tomb of two Brothers
Tomb of two Brothers at the Deir
Coffins are made of many materials, including steel, various types of
wood, and other materials such as fiberglass or recycled kraft paper.
There is emerging interest in eco-friendly coffins made of purely
natural materials such as bamboo, X-Board, willow or banana leaf.
Custom coffins are occasionally created and some companies also make
set ranges with non-traditional designs. These include printing or
painting of peaceful tropical scenes, sea-shells, sunsets, cherubs and
patriotic flags. Some manufacturers have designed them to look like
gym carry bags, guitar cases, cigar humidors, and even yellow dumpster
bins. Other coffins are left deliberately blank so that friends and
family can inscribe final wishes and thoughts upon them to the
deceased. In Taiwan, coffins made of crushed oyster shells were
used in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1990s,
the rock group Kiss released a customized Kiss Kasket, which featured
their trademark makeup designs and KISS logo and could also be used as
Dimebag Darrell was buried in one.
Xanita has developed a new grade of environmentally-friendly
coffin board which is designed to cleanly incinerate using around half
the gas needed to incinerate traditional veneered MDF coffins. This
assists Crematoriums meet their CO2 emissions targets.
Design coffins in Ghana
Daniel Mensah (Hello), 2006
Coffins as an aircraft, a hen, a crab, a cocoa pod in Teshie, Ghana.
Design coffins in Ghana, also called fantasy coffins or figurative
coffins, are only made by specialized carpenters in the Greater Accra
Region. These colourful objects, which are not only coffins, but
considered real works of art, were shown for the first time to a wider
Western public in the exhibition Les Magiciens de la terre at the
Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1989. The seven coffins
which were exposed in Paris were done by
Seth Kane Kwei
Seth Kane Kwei (1922–1992)
and by his former assistant
Paa Joe (b.1947). Since then coffins
of Kane Kweis successors Paa Joe, Daniel Mensah,
Kudjoe Affutu or Eric
Adjetey Anang and others have been displayed in many international art
museums and galleries around the world. The design coffins of the
Ga have long been celebrated in the Western art world as the invention
of a single, autonomous artist, the coffin maker Kane Kwei (1924-1992)
of Teshie. But as
Regula Tschumi shows with her recent research this
assumption was false. Design coffins have existed already before Kane
Kwei and other Ga carpenters like
Ataa Oko (1919-2012) from La have
built their first figurative coffins around 1950. Kane Kwei
Ataa Oko had only continued a tradition that already existed in
Accra where the kings were using figurative palanquins in the forms of
their family symbol. And as those chiefs who were using figurative
palanquins had to be buried in a coffin looking like their palanquin,
their families used figurative coffins which were formerly nothing
else than the copies of the design palanquins. Today figurative
coffins are of course no more reserved for the traditional Ga and
their kings, many families who use figurative coffins are indeed
Christians. For them design coffins have no longer a spiritual
function, their appeal is more aesthetic, aimed at surprising mourners
with strikingly innovative forms like automobiles or aeroplanes, fish
or pigs, onions or tomatoes. So the figurative coffins, rather
than constituting a new art form as it was long believed, were
developed from the figurative palanquins which had existed already a
With the resurgence of cremation in the Western world, manufacturers
have begun providing options for those who choose cremation. For a
direct cremation a cardboard box is sometimes used. Those who wish to
have a funeral visitation (sometimes called a viewing) or traditional
funeral service will use a coffin of some sort.
Some choose to use a coffin made of wood or other materials like
particle board or low-density fibreboard. Others will rent a regular
casket for the duration of the services. These caskets have a
removable bed and liner which is replaced after each use. There are
also rental caskets with an outer shell that looks like a traditional
coffin and a cardboard box that fits inside the shell. At the end of
the services the inner box is removed and the deceased is cremated
inside this box.
A coffin shop in Macau.
The rise of consumerism: a Universal Casket sales kiosk within a U.S.
Costco warehouse retail store in California. Steel caskets are
available from $799. Delivery direct to a funeral home is available in
48 hours to 33 states and Washington, D.C. The cost with shipping
(about $1500) is about a third of comparable costs of a similar casket
bought through a funeral home. This is an example of an increasingly
competition-driven and direct-to-consumer marketing funeral
Traditionally, in the Western world, a coffin was made, when required,
by the village carpenter, who would frequently manage the whole
funeral. The design and workmanship would reflect the skills of that
individual carpenter, with the materials and brasses being the
materials that were available at the time. In past centuries, if a
pauper's funeral was paid for by the parish, the coffin might have
been made of the cheapest, thinnest possible pine. At the other
extreme, a coffin bought privately by a wealthy individual might have
used yew or mahogany with a fine lining, plated fittings and brass
decorations, topped with a decorated velvet drape.
In modern times coffins are almost always mass-produced. Some
manufacturers do not sell directly to the public, and only work with
funeral homes. In that case, the funeral director usually sells the
casket to a family for a deceased person as part of the funeral
services offered, and in that case the price of the casket is included
in the total bill for services rendered. Some funeral homes will have
a small showroom to present families with the available caskets that
could be used for a deceased family member. In many modern funeral
homes the showroom will consist of sample pieces that show the end
pieces of each type of coffin that can be used. They also include
samples of the lining and other materials. This allows funeral homes
to showcase a larger number of coffin styles without the need for a
larger showroom. Other types may be available from a catalogue,
including decorative paint effects or printed photographs or patterns.
Under a United States federal regulation, 16 CFR Part 453 (known as
Funeral Rule), if a family provides a casket they purchased
elsewhere (for example from a United States retail warehouse store, as
illustrated here), the establishment is required to accept the casket
and use it in the services. If the casket is delivered direct to the
funeral home from the manufacturer or store, they are required to
accept delivery of the casket. The funeral home may not add any extra
charges or fees to the overall bill if a family decides to purchase a
casket elsewhere. If the casket was bought from the funeral home,
these regulations require bills to be completely itemized.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Coffins.
^ See also berceau, couffin and cophinus at Wiktionary
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Hit". The Wall Street Journal.
^ Lewis, Charlton T.; Short, Charles. "cophinus". A
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^ Roberta Bonetti, Alternate Histories of the Abebuu Adekai, African
Arts, autumn 2010, p. 14-33: Roberta Bonetti reached in 2010 the same
Regula Tschumi some years before. She actually considers
the well-known stories about the origin of the figure-coffins to have
been invented: „[...] We have seen how the same criteria of
authenticity that were fundamental in documenting the uniqueness and
truthfulness of ancient works have been adopted for recent coffins.
The proof is provided by the presumed origin of the work, which has
become even more precious and exceptional ever since the death of its
„invented“ inventor, Kane Kwei“.
^ The buried treasures of the Ga.
Coffin art in Ghana. Regula Tschumi.
Bern: Benteli 2008, p. 57, 221-22.
^ "FAQ". Costco.universalcasket.com. Retrieved 2014-03-10.
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Significance, in: African Arts, Vol. 46, Nr. 4, 2013, p. 60-73.
Roberta Bonetti: Alternate Histories of the Abebuu Adekai. African
Arts, Vol. 43, No. 3, 2010, p. 14-33.
Thierry Secretan: Going into darkness: Fantastic coffins from Africa.
Regula Tschumi: The Buried Treasures of the Ga.
Coffin Art in Ghana.
Benteli, 2008. ISBN 978-3-7165-1520-4.
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National Museum of Australia Aboriginal bark coffins