How Coffins Work

Coffin Cosmetics and Cultures

In addition to their practical functions, coffins are a ceremonial aspect of funeral practices in societies all over the world. And, as you might suspect, different cultures have vastly different traditions when it comes to constructing and decorating coffins for their deceased.

For example, in the U.S., relatively easy access to resource materials and formal funeral traditions have resulted in the popularity of elegant, high-quality coffin designs. Funeral homes will often stress respect for the dead as a selling point on a nice coffin. During the funeral, the coffin is often the centerpiece of the proceedings and is likely to be displayed for the mourners during or before the ceremony.

In the modern Western world, coffins are generally made of a sturdy shell and a plush lining. The shell may be made from a hardy wood -- often elm or oak, but sometimes cherry or mahogany -- or a heavy metal like steel, copper or bronze. The lining may be made of taffeta, velvet or a similarly rich (or rich-looking) material with polyester batting, similar to a couch cushion [source: Woodward]. And, just as funereal language is carefully calculated to increase customer comfort, so is coffin design: Many American coffins are produced in warm (or "advancing") colors as opposed to cooler (or "receding") colors that might be associated more viscerally with the concept of death.

As sensitive as the funeral business is, it's still a business. One tactic that the funeral industry has used to sell more expensive coffins is to design inexpensive coffins to be intentionally unattractive, and sometimes downright ugly [source: Mitford]. People who want to bury their loved ones in style must therefore drop more cash to avoid what could be interpreted as sending a beloved friend or relative into the afterlife in a low-quality receptacle. In fact, in some cultures, a grand send-off is a key aspect of showing respect for the deceased -- surviving friends and family will even risk going into debt to give a loved one a proper burial [source: Chinese Ministry of Global Culture].

Other cultures are more ambivalent: In Great Britain and Australia, for example, the coffin and casket industry is far less robust than it is in America, with far less importance placed on the quality or design of a coffin [source: Mitford]. Similarly, the Jewish faith requires that its dead be buried in plain coffins to eliminate any socioeconomic distinction [source: Jewish Federations].