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Stuff That Changed the World: From sarcophagus to taphophobia, the history of the coffin

Ahead of Halloween, Simon Tierney runs us through the fascinating history of the coffin.

Simon Tierney Author

The following is an extra from a new book, Stuff That Changed The World, which looks at the history of everyday items. Ahead of Halloween, Simon Tierney runs us through the fascinating history of the coffin.

AN ARTICLE IN the New York Times in 1868 reported on an astonishing new invention, designed to mitigate a common fear during the 19th century.

‘A German gentleman, advanced in years, named Franz Vester, at present a resident at Newark, recently received a patent for a safety coffin, designed so as to provide a way of escape to those who might be buried during suspended animation.’

In 19th-century Europe and America, taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive, was rampant during a time when medical practitioners were less adept at reaching a conclusive diagnosis of death.

As late as the 1920s, evidence of premature burial persisted.

Author Jan Bondeson recounts the memories of a gravedigger during the Great Depression in the United States. During the exhumation of bodies in a graveyard, he recalled that it had ‘been a horrible experience to see how many of the corpses had been buried alive by mistake … there were gashed and broken foreheads from pounding the coffin lids, torn fingernails and desperately contorted faces that the young gravedigger never forgot’.

Popular stories of the 19th century, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, perpetuated people’s fears. In Edgar Allen Poe’s 1844 short story The Premature Burial, the narrator is so obsessed with falling into a cataleptic coma, and therefore being presumed dead, that he had a special tomb designed which would allow him a way to escape from his coffin, an idea not dissimilar to Vester’s a quarter of a century later.

Vester’s invention consisted of a two-foot square chimney structure to deliver oxygen into the coffin below. The chimney housed a little ladder to allow the prematurely buried to climb out of their tomb. Provisions were also made in the event that the interred were too weak to climb out.

‘Under the head is a receptacle for wine and refreshments,’ reported The Spectator in 1868.

‘A spring inside enables the occupant to ring a bell’, which would presumably both alert and terrify any passers-by. Vester was so convinced of his solution to premature burial that he performed a live demonstration to a crowd of onlookers in New York.

After an hour he emerged from his grisly tomb ‘with no more perceptible exhaustion than would have been caused by walking two or three locks under the hot sun’.

Some of the earliest coffins were wooden and were developed during the Naqada Period in Ancient Egypt, from 3800 BC. Before this, corpses were simply wrapped in cloth or reeds and buried in a pit.

Early Dynastic Period (3000 BC) coffins were made of wood panelling and featured architectural detailing resembling the facade of a palace.

Coffins developed with the increased importance of religious rituals during burial.

The sarcophagus, an above-ground stone tomb, was used in both Ancient Egypt and Greece. It derives its etymology from the Greek words sarco (flesh) and phagus (eater).

‘The earliest types of these burial vessels, according to ancient scholars Pliny and Theophrastus, were made out of Assius stone,’ writes Douglas Keister in Stories in Stone.

‘Because of its caustic properties, this stone reduced the body to bone in a matter of weeks.’

Later, sarcophagi were designed to preserve a mummified corpse rather than destroy it, but the grisly flesh-eating description persisted.

Excavations of Roman London have revealed that lead was an important material in the coffin making business. This is a soft metal that could be easily manipulated. A number of lead coffins in the collection of the Museum of London, including that of a child, are highly decorative with scallop shell and ribbon patterning. To achieve this level of detail, a sand box would have been built. A real shell would then be used to make an impression in the sand. The lead would have been melted down and poured gently into the sand box and allowed to cool, leaving the memory of the sea shell intact.

During the Middle Ages in England, people were buried in wooden or stone coffins.

‘If the person was wealthy enough, the coffin could have been made specially and buried with the person. In an early Tudor example, a coffin was described as being ‘waxed’ for Richard Hunne, a rich London merchant,’ explains Christopher Daniell in Death and Burial in Medieval England, 1066 to 1550.

On the other hand, the poor were buried in a ‘reusable parish coffin’. This would have held the body during the funeral, but once the burial took place, the body would have been removed and buried in a shroud.

This was a practice which the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (Marie Antoinette’s brother) reintroduced in 1784, in a measure designed to save on resources. His ‘economy coffin’ had a hinged trap door in the base.

As it was lowered into the grave, the undertaker released the hinge and the body dropped. The coffin was then removed and set up for the next burial. The Viennese were appalled and riots ensued until Joseph eventually retracted the policy.

The word coffin derives from the Latin cophinus, meaning ‘basket’.

It was first used in English, in a burial context, in the 1520s.

During the Plague in London in 1665, the Lord Mayor, William Lawrence, issued strict orders regarding burial. In an attempt to stop the spread of infection from rotting corpses, those who had died of plague were to be buried ‘at least six feet deep’.

This was the beginning of the ‘six feet under’ tradition, although nowadays graves tend to be shallower than this.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the proliferation of medical schools in Britain and America demanded an increase in the availability of cadavers for students to study anatomy.

The supply of executed criminals, delivered directly from the gallows, simply didn’t meet demand. The stealing of corpses from coffins became commonplace, at first by medical students and later by professional body snatchers.

‘This shift was at first gradual. Bribing corrupt sextons with a few pence from their allowance, slowly adapted into paying a bodysnatcher to bring a cadaver to the back door of the anatomy school,’ explains Suzie Lennox in her history of this grisly enterprise.

The ‘resurrection men’, as they became known, first had to locate a new grave, because only fresh cadavers could be sold to the schools. Taller corpses were particularly prized because the cadavers sold by the inch. Under the cover of night, they carefully dug down at the head end of a grave, using wooden spades (metal ones were too noisy and attracted attention). The lid would then be crowbarred open.

‘Standing aside to let the corpse gasses escape, they could then begin to place ropes either around the corpse’s head or under its armpits,’ explains Lennox. ‘On the count of three the cadaver could be pulled free of the coffin … stripped of its grave clothes and squashed into a sack.’

In the 19th century, the city of Baltimore, in the United States, was a major centre of body snatching due to the presence there of six medical schools. The resurrection men pickled the cadavers in barrels of whiskey to preserve them and stifle the stench.

Once the body had been successfully delivered to the customer, the putrid whiskey was sold off to saloons as a cheap beverage for their customers. This delicious concoction was fondly known as ‘rotgut’.

Undertakers turned to more durable materials such as iron and lead, sealed and secured under lock and key, to deter the bodysnatchers. Iron cages were devised to entomb coffins.

Graveyards such as Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, opened in 1832, were designed with watch towers so that guards could survey the grounds and apprehend the wily resurrection men. A high profile case in 1878 inspired entrepreneurs to find better solutions to body snatching.

The body of an Irish millionaire by the name of Alexander Turney Stewart was stolen by snatchers from St. Mark’s in New York in that year. Stewart had grown up in Lisburn but had made his fortune as a retailer in America.

‘The stealing of A.T. Stewart’s body started a host of inventors into a new line of labor, the object being to prevent the repetition of so horrible a crime,’ reported the New York Times in 1882.

One innovative solution was introduced by Philip K Clover, who invented the Torpedo Coffin.

‘It was, in essence, a trap or spring gun, installed inside the coffin. When the grave robber attempted to remove the body from the coffin, the trigger was sprung, sending a ball or buckshot upwards, and, hopefully, into the body of the thief,’ writes Wayne Fanebust in The Missing Corpse.

According to a January 1881 edition of an Ohio newspaper, ‘On Monday night three body snatchers, while attempting to rob a grave near Gann, this county, met with a fatal accident. While excavating the grave the picks came in contact with a torpedo, which exploded, killing one of the ghouls’.

Today, the coffin continues to be the burial choice of many, contributing to the multi billion-dollar funeral industry. Although we only see them at funerals, they fill our landscapes, six feet under, a testament to an ancient tradition that continues to entomb and honour the dead.

Simon Tierney is a researcher and reporter with Newstalk. His book, Stuff That Changed the World, looks at the extraordinary history of ordinary things. 

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