Before I continue on to the intended subject, I would like to mention that one of the mortuary archaeology blogs that I follow, Bones Don’t Lie, also has a similarly inspired series entitled Morbid Terminology.
So, is it a coffin or a casket? This type of post is common among funeral blogs my google search tells me, which means there are apparently still plenty out there that are ignorant to the difference. And you know, considering my overwhelming desire to blend in with my peers, I must do one of these types of posts myself– I mean what would a funeral terminology series be without rehashing the definitions of these two particular terms? I will say though, that because I am no longer a student, I do not have free access to the wealth of primary or even secondary sources like I used to. So as much as I wanted to search some journals for some interesting articles, I simply could not.
The Coffin and the Casket
The terms casket and coffin are used interchangeably with such frequency that alluding to the difference elicits blank stares or the very familiar “Oh” from some people. While I cannot attest to the validity of the statement across history, culture or continents, I can tell you that within the contemporary North American funeral industry there is a distinction between the terms casket and coffin. With both serving the same general purpose, the significant distinction lies in the design.
Technically, according to the Australian Museum, coffin is the general term for the receptacles in which human remains are buried. A coffin, by definition with respect to the funeral industry, is a case or receptacle for human remains which is anthropoid in shape with six or eight sides. Thus, coffins are tapered at the head and foot, which according to one of my professors, was why they were sometimes referred to as toe pinchers.
A casket, on the other hand, is defined, by the Federal Trade Commission in the Funeral Rule – 16 CFR Part 453, as “a rigid container which is designed for the encasement of human remains and which is usually constructed of wood, metal, or like material, and ornamented and lined with fabric” (See this document, section Definitions). Another definition for casket is as follows:
“A case or receptacle in which human remains are placed for protection, practical utility, and a suitable memory picture; any box or container of one or more parts in which a dead human body is placed prior to interment, entombment, or cremation which may or may not be permanently interred, entombed, or cremated with the human remains” *
Caskets do not taper at the head and foot and are typically rectangular in shape. The other difference in design can been seen in the tops. Coffins typically have removable tops, whereas caskets typically have hinged tops. Of course, this is not always the case as you can see in the pictures below, but it is worth noting.
In terms of contemporary trends, the coffin is still rather popular in Europe, while the casket is more popular in North America. Princess Diana was buried in a lead-lined coffin; it weighed 40 stone or approximately 560 pounds (Sweeney et al., 1997).
I will end this post with two entries on the etymology of casket and coffin from the Online Etymology Dictionary,* because I have always found etymology to be interesting.
Casket: mid-15c., “small box for jewels, etc.,” possibly formed as a dim. of English cask, or from M.Fr. casset (see cassette). Meaning “coffin” is Amer.Eng., probably euphemistic, first attested 1849.
Coffin: early 14c., “chest or box for valuables,” from O.Fr. cofin “sarcophagus,” earlier “basket, coffer” (12c., Mod.Fr. coffin), from L. cophinus “basket, hamper” (cf. It. cafano, Sp. cuebano “basket”), from Gk. kophinos “a basket,” of uncertain origin. Funeral sense in English is 1520s; before that it was the literal Latin one and had also a meaning of “pie crust” (late 14c.). Meaning “vehicle regarded as unsafe” is from 1830s. Coffin nail “cigarette” is slang from 1880; nail in (one’s) coffin “thing that contributes to one’s death” is from 1792.
*I am unsure of the origin of this second definition for casket, but it is standard in the industry and appears in every funeral terminology text that I have seen. This leads me to believe it originated or was agreed upon by one of the national associations.
*The basic sources for the online etymology site are Weekley’s An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, Klein’s A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Oxford English Dictionary (second edition), Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, Holthausen’s Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Englischen Sprache, and Kipfer & Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang.