How Coffins Work

A hardwood, plush-lined, modern coffin
A hardwood, plush-lined, modern coffin

They appear in the television dramas we watch, the horror movies we compulsively consume and the dreams that play across our brains at night. Sometimes, we even encounter them, in their tangible form, in our own lives. But despite coffins ruling burials all over the globe, how much do you really know about these containers?

Here's a start. The word coffin has its roots in the ancient Greek kophinos and Latin cophinus, meaning basket [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 has become much more targeted toward its present meaning: a box designed to hold and bury a corpse [source: Merriam-Webster].

In North America, you'll hear people use the terms coffin and casket interchangeably. Don't make that mistake in Australia, England or other parts of the world, where casket may still retain its meaning as an "ornate box for jewels and other valuables" [source: Mitford]. Some people also distinguish between the two in terms of physical shape: Coffins are tapered or hexagonal, while caskets are rectangular and have a lid split for mourners to view the deceased [source: The Funeral Source].

Funeral professionals tend to disdain the word coffin for its perceived morbid and depressing air, which could put off potential customers. They have some other euphemisms, too [source: Mitford]:

  • "Display area" instead of "casket room"
  • "Casket coach" instead of "hearse"
  • "Interment space" instead of "grave"
  • "Opening the interment space" instead of "digging 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.

Now that you can speak the lingo, let's crack open a coffin.