1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Coffin

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COFFIN (from Lat. cophinus, Gr. κόφινος, a coffer, chest or basket, but never meaning “coffin” in its present sense), the receptacle in which a corpse is confined. The Greeks and Romans disposed of their dead both by burial and by cremation. Greek coffins varied in shape, being in the form of an urn, or like the modern coffins, or triangular, the body being in a sitting posture. The material used was generally burnt clay, and in some cases this had obviously been first moulded round the body, and so baked. Cremation was the commonest method of disposing of the dead among the Romans, until the Christian era, when stone coffins came into use. Examples of these have been frequently dug up in England. In 1853, during excavations for the foundations of some warehouses in Hayden Square, Minories, London, a Roman stone coffin was found within which was a leaden shell. Others have been found at Whitechapel, Stratford-le-Bow, Old Kent Road and Battersea Fields, and in great numbers at Colchester, York, Southfleet and Kingsholme near Gloucester. In early England stone coffins were only used by the nobles and the wealthy. Those of the Romans who were rich enough had their coffins made of a limestone brought from Assos in Troas, which it was commonly believed “ate the body”; hence arose the name sarcophagus (q.v.).

The coffins of the Chaldaeans were generally clay urns with the top left open, resembling immense jars. These, too, must have been moulded round the body, as the size of the mouth would not admit of its introduction after the clay was baked. The Egyptian coffins, or sarcophagi, as they have been improperly called, are the largest stone coffins known and are generally highly polished and covered with hieroglyphics, usually a history of the deceased. Mummy chests shaped to the form of the body were also used. These were made of hard wood or papier mâché painted, and like the stone coffins bore hieroglyphics. The Persians, Parthians, Medes and peoples of the Caspian are not known to have had any coffins, their usual custom being to expose the body to be devoured by beasts and birds of prey. Unhewn flat stones were sometimes used by the ancient European peoples to line the grave. One was placed at the bottom, others stood on their edges to form the sides, and a large slab was put on top, thus forming a rude cist. In England after the Roman invasion these rude cists gave place to the stone coffin, and this, though varying much in shape, continued in use until the 16th century.

The most primitive wooden coffin was formed of a tree-trunk split down the centre, and hollowed out. The earliest specimen of this type is in the Copenhagen museum, the implements found in it proving that it belonged to the Bronze Age. This type of coffin, more or less modified by planing, was used in medieval Britain by those of the better classes who could not afford stone, but the poor were buried without coffins, wrapped simply in cloth or even covered only with hay and flowers. Towards the end of the 17th century, coffins became usual for all classes. It is worth noting that in the Burial Service in the Book of Common Prayer the word “coffin” is not used.

Among the American Indians some tribes, e.g. the Sacs, Foxes and Sioux, used rough hewn wooden coffins; others, such as the Seris, sometimes enclosed the corpse between the carapace and plastron of a turtle. The Seminoles of Florida used no coffins, while at Santa Barbara, California, canoes containing corpses have been found buried though they may have been intended for the dead warrior’s use in the next world. Rough stone cists, too, have been found, especially in Illinois and Kentucky. In their tree and scaffold burial the Indians sometimes used wooden coffins, but oftener the bodies were simply wrapped in blankets. Canoes mounted on a scaffold near a river were used as coffins by some tribes, while others placed the corpse in a canoe or wicker basket and floated them out into the stream or lake (see Funeral Rites). The aborigines of Australia generally used coffins of bark, but some tribes employed baskets of wicker-work.

Lead coffins were used in Europe in the middle ages, shaped like the mummy chests of ancient Egypt. Iron coffins were more rare, but they were certainly used in England and Scotland as late as the 17th century, when an order was made that upon bodies so buried a heavier burial fee should be levied. The coffins used in England to-day are generally of elm or oak lined with lead, or with a leaden shell so as to delay as far as possible the process of disintegration and decomposition. In America glass is sometimes used for the lids, and the inside is lined with copper or zinc. The coffins of France and Germany and the continent generally, usually differ from those of England in not being of the ordinary hexagonal shape but having sides and ends parallel. Coffins used in cremation throughout the civilized world are of some light material easily consumed and yielding little ash. Ordinary thin deal and papier mâché are the favourite materials. Coffins for what is known as Earth to Earth Burial are made of wicker-work covered with a thin layer of papier mâché over cloth.

See also Funeral Rites; Cremation; Burial and Burial Acts; Embalming; Mummy, &c.

Bibliography.—Dr H. C. Yarrow, “Study of the Mortuary Customs of the North American Indians,” Report of Bureau of Amer. Ethnol. vol. i. (Washington, U.S.A., 1881); Rev. Thomas Hugo, “On the Hayden Square Sarcophagus,” Journ. of Archaeol. Soc. vol. ix. (London, 1854); C. V. Creagh, “On Unusual Forms of Burial by People of the East Coast of Borneo,” J.A.I., vol. xxvi. (London, 1896–1897); Rev. J. Edward Vaux, Church Folk-lore (1894).