Quirks and Innovations in Coffin Anatomy
The basic function of a coffin is to create a membrane around a corpse. But what happens if it's not enough? Over the years, several specialist coffins have been produced by the funeral industry to meet a variety of needs and concerns.
One example is the safe coffin which has been widely marketed by the American funeral industry because it features a rubber gasket to provide a more durable seal against earth and elements. Some designs used an impermeable seal which may initially seem like an attractive choice. After all, it's normal to choose the most safe receptacle accessible if you are burying a loved one.
When a body dies, however, it releases methane gas— which, if not allowed to leak out, builds up inside the coffin and actually will cause it to explode. Because no-one wants that, the industry has created burping coffins that are defensive structures that rely on a permeable seal to shield the body while allowing gas to escape. While these coffins provide a degree of protection from decay, it is now illegal for funeral providers to say that the body will be preserved forever by such models.
However, during the early 19th century, these protective caskets may not have been enough to shield a body from medical students. During this time of so-called body-snatching, criminals broke into graves to steal bodies for medical education and study. The funeral industry responded by introducing more heavy-duty safety measures. Instead of only a coffin, corpses will also be interred in thick-walled vaults, possibly fitted with several doors, and guards staffed. In addition, a mortar safe, a type of iron cage placed over a vault, should have been secured over the grave in concrete.
A locked gate will allow loved ones to enter the grave. Not sufficient money for the more high-tech solutions? Heavy wooden planks or metal slabs mounted over the coffin proved hard to remove for unwelcome tourists. Alternatively, if disturbed, stones filling the grave in place of dirt would cause a ruckus, attracting attention during the act to would-be body snatchers.
Coffin Cosmetics and Cultures
Besides their functional purposes, coffins are a symbolic component of funeral rituals in cultures worldwide. And, as you would imagine, different cultures have very different customs when it comes to making and decorating their deceased's coffins. Relatively simple access to resources and traditional funeral customs, for example, have resulted in the popularity of elegant, high-quality coffin designs in the USA. Funeral homes also emphasize reverence for the dead as a point of sale on a pretty coffin. The coffin is also the centerpiece of the ceremonies during the funeral and is likely to be shown during or before the service for the mourners.
Coffins are usually made in the modern Western world from a solid shell and a plush lining. The shell may be made from a hardy wood— sometimes elm or oak, but often cherry or mahogany— or a heavy metal like steel, copper or bronze. The lining can consist of taffeta, velvet or similarly rich (or expensive-looking) polyester batting material, similar to a couch cushion. And just as funeral terminology is carefully designed to maximize consumer comfort, so is coffin design: Most American coffins are manufactured in warm (or "advancing") colors as opposed to cooler (or "receiving") colors that may more viscerally be associated with the idea of death. As delicate as the business of the funeral is, it is still a business. One of the techniques used by the funeral industry to sell more expensive coffins is to design cheap coffins to be purposely unattractive, and often ugly. Thus, people who wish to bury their loved ones in style will drop more cash to prevent what could be perceived as bringing a beloved friend or family in a low-quality receptacle into the afterlife. In reality, a grand send-off in some cultures is a crucial aspect of showing respect for the deceased— surviving friends and family may also risk going into debt to give a loved one a proper burial.
Many cultures are more ambivalent: for example, the coffin and casket industries in Great Britain and Australia are far less vigorous than they are in America, with much less focus on the consistency of the design of a coffin. Similarly, to remove any social differentiation, the Jewish religion demands that its dead be buried in simple coffins.