Eighteenth-Century Perceptions Of The Coffin

1664 Parish Coffin from Yorkshire, England

A 1664 Parish Coffin from Yorkshire, England

Litten, Julian. "Chapter 4: Lapped in Lead, Encased in Oak: The Coffin." In The English Way of Death: The Common Funeral Since 1450. Ramsbury, UK: Robert Hale Limited, 2002.

During the eighteenth century and beyond, the coffin has been viewed as a symbol of status while burial practices have varied worldwide. In England, it became a way to maintain class distinctions even in death. During the fifteenth century, those who belonged to the peasant class would have never expected to be buried in a coffin. Moreover, the tradition of allowing family members or friends of the deceased to construct the coffin themselves did not always yield positive results. A lack of funds or expertise resulted in coffins that were not constructed correctly or tightly by a craftsman, therefore causing quick decay of the deceased's body and as a result a quick decay of politeness. It was not until the sixteenth century, with the introduction of the parish coffin, that coffin decoration marked the distinction between classes in death. The parish coffin was reusable, and its varying degrees of ornamentation distinguished a noble or gentry funeral from a lower class funeral. These coffins could be borrowed by the family of the deceased in order to provide them with a respectable image in death. The coffins were brought to the graveside for the ceremony and mourning to take place. After the body was removed and buried, the parish coffin would then be taken away after the friends and family of the deceased left the gravesite. However, disease, most notably the plague in 1665, hit England hard during the seventeenth century, leading to the abandonment of the reusable parish coffin. In addition to the plague, the seventeenth century saw a rise in the funeral furnishing trade, and by the eighteenth century, the supply of coffins was more or less dominated by this trade. 

Workers in the funeral furnishing trade, the cabinetmakers, and the family of the deceased, would have known that the distinctions of rank had to be apparent and preserved through everything from the wood chosen, to the construction, to the ornamentation of the coffin, lining, and shroud. During the late eighteenth-century, catalogues and other design source books appeared, allowing members of society to see what woods, linings, and coffin furniture were deemed suitable for a lower, middle, and upper class coffins and funerals. By the first quarter of the eighteenth century, the funeral furnishing business had become well-established in England.