Material Matters

In America during the mid-20th century, metal caskets -- which were actually cheaper to produce in high quantities than high-quality wooden coffins, garnering a greater profit margin -- began to sell at significantly higher rates because they looked modern. So great was the influence of funeral directors and coffin salespeople that customers began to purchase metal coffins for cremations, which meant the coffin would have to be disposed of separately [source: Mitford].

Anatomy of a Coffin

Even if you haven't had any personal experience with coffins, you probably have a general idea of what they look like. But why do they look the way they do, and why do so many cultures use them in the first place?

While coffins can't provide impermeable protection for bodies, they still serve as a barrier between a body and the elements. Most comprise a sturdy, outer shell and an interior lining that cushions the body. However, throughout history, families that couldn't afford an elaborate coffin buried their dead in plain, wooden boxes or even simply wrapped in sheets [source: Woodward].

Public health regulations in many developed countries, including the United States, require that coffins be constructed using sturdy materials and sealed permanently to avoid contamination of the earth by the decaying body [source: U.S. Public Health Service]. In less developed countries, however, where central governments are often contested or nonexistent, these kinds of regulations are less common, not to mention less enforceable.

In situations like these, the construction of burial receptacles may also be influenced by a society's geographical location. For example, cultures located in forested areas often construct coffins out of wood, while desert-based civilizations often use materials like stone, clay or papier-mâché [source: Woodward].

As you might expect, coffins used for cremation are slightly different from those used for burial. In order to break down easily, cremation coffins are generally made of light, cheap woods, like particleboard or even cardboard. However, if a viewing is scheduled before the cremation, many funeral homes offer the option of renting an outer coffin for that purpose. When the body is cremated, the outer coffin is removed [source: Wuyi Xinglong].

Although the basic design of a coffin or casket is simple, some more specialized coffins require a great degree of complex engineering. We'll cover that and why picking the wrong coffin might have explosive consequences next.