We see them in horror movies and in television dramas. We read about them in fiction and history books. Sometimes, we even encounter them in our own lives. But despite them being an integral aspect of burials all over the globe, how much do you really know about coffins?
The word coffin has its roots in the ancient Greek kophinos and Latin cophinus, meaning a basket, which is indicative of just how long coffins have been around [source: Harper]. According to Merriam-Webster, the earliest known use of the word in the English language dates back to the 14th century, when it was used to mean a small box or chest for storing valuables. Over the years, the word coffin has evolved to become more specific: Today, it refers to "the box or chest for burying a corpse" [source: Merriam-Webster]. It was first used in its modern sense in 1525, in W.L. Nash's "Churchwardens' Acct. Bk. St. Giles, Reading."
Sometimes used interchangeably with coffin is the word casket [source: Merriam-Webster]. However, it's primarily in North America that casket takes on its meaning as a burial receptacle; in Australia, as in England and other parts of the world, casket may still retain its meaning as an "ornate box for jewels and other valuables" [source: Mitford].
Despite the words' nearly interchangeable use in common vernacular, some people draw distinctions between the two in terms of physical shape: Coffins are tapered or hexagonal, while a casket is rectangular and has a lid split for mourners to view the deceased [source: The Funeral Source].
A place where you won't hear the two terms used interchangeably, however, is in a funeral home, but the distinction has nothing to do with the receptacles' shapes. The real reason is strategic -- it's widely held in the funerary profession that the word coffin evokes a more morbid and depressing air, which could be significantly off-putting to potential customers [source: Mitford]. The funerary lexicon is tacitly but strictly guided by these constraints. Other euphemisms include [source: Mitford]:
- "Display area" instead of "casket room"
- "Casket coach" instead of "hearse"
- "Interment space" instead of "grave"
- "Opening [closing] the interment space" instead of "digging [filling] the grave"
No matter what you call them, coffins can be unsettling. As a result, many cultures employ a pall during funeral ceremonies, which is a heavy cloth that is placed over the coffin. If anyone's ever remarked to you that a particularly dour individual "cast a pall over a room," you might see the connection with the usage above. Pall can also mean a general feeling or mood of gloom -- or, in its verb form, "to weaken" [source: Merriam-Webster, The Funeral Source].
Now we know about the terminology, but how does a coffin actually work? Read on to find out.