copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Replica of Abraham Lincoln's Coffin
There’s no pleasant way to get rid of a dead body. Cremation, burial at sea, exposure to the elements and wild animals, burial in the earth, mummification--all these methods and others have been tried, but they all leave something, more or less, to be desired. If one opts for burial in the soil, rather than at sea, he or she will need a coffin, whether of pine or solid gold. Since most people do opt for burial in the soil, coffins are likely to remain everyday horrors. As such, they’re worthy of a post in this series.
Originally, the coffin was simply a simple pine box. Its purpose was simple, too: contain the corpse. Once buried, the coffin, if not the corpse, was soon forgotten. Now, it would be considered gauche, to say the very least, to bury a dearly departed in so simple (and cheap) a box. Nothing less than the finest mahogany, or even bronze, lined with satin or silk, will do. After all, the more expensive the coffin, the more its quality indicates the degree to which the loved one was loved.
Haraldskaer Woman's Coffin
Although many coffins are plain, some are fanciful, shaped like fish, bottles, or guitars, whereas others bear a glass cover that allows a glimpse of the body inside, such as that of the Haraldskaer woman on display in the Church of St. Nicolai in Vejle, Denmark or of S. P. Dinsmoor, the Civil War veteran who built a concrete Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas to showcase his political and religious beliefs.
S. P. Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden, where his glass-covered cement coffin is displayed, Dinsmoor, inside, looking a bit mouldy
In the nineteenth century, Americans and others were terrified of being buried alive, as Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Premature Burial” suggests, and coffins were equipped with alarms that could be sounded by the coffin’s occupant, in the event that he or she had been mistakenly buried alive. Modern coffins (often called “caskets”) are frequently equipped with features that are supposed to protect the body from bacteria, insects, temperature changes, and other threats, but none do so indefinitely and caskets with air-tight seals actually promote the decay of the body rather than retarding or preventing it. An airtight casket expedites the decomposition of the corpse by bacteria that thrive in an oxygen-free environment.
Among models offered by most casket manufacturers are the 20-gauge steel coffin with or without an airtight gasket; a 16-gauge steel coffin; a stainless-steel coffin; a solid copper coffin, which may or may not attract grave robbers bent upon collecting the metal for resale; a solid bronze coffin ; and hardwood coffins of poplar, oak, maple, cherry, mahogany, and pine. There are also extra-large caskets and Jewish caskets, the male versions of which, presumably, are circumcised. The best value among one supplier’s metal coffins is the Hamilton DCM01, regularly selling at $1,395, but discounted for who-knows-how-long, at a mere $795. It’s a 20-gauge steel coffin, without the airtight seal (what does one expect for a paltry $795?), of sliver color, and has a white crepe interior. The company’s best value in wood coffins is the Montgomery DCTH50, which normally costs $2,195 but is discounted to $1,395. It has a hardwood mahogany finish on the outside and a white crepe interior. The supplier offers a quick course on how to select a coffin, Caskets 101. The course begins with some basic (one might say self-evident) information, and, in bold font, states the disclaimer, “No caskets or vaults protect human remains from decomposition, no matter how much you spend.” Instead, the purpose of the coffin is to serve as “a vehicle to place a loved one in for a ceremony and an interment.” The decomposition of the corpse, Caskets 101 stresses, is “inevitable,” no matter how much or how little one spends on the body's “vehicle.” The course also offers this interesting tidbit, in case student-customers are wondering: “Besides steel caskets, there are copper and bronze caskets. These caskets are measured by the ounce, meaning a 32 Oz. Bronze casket contains 32 ounces of bronze for every square foot of casket.” The purpose of the sealer is to prevent air and water from disturbing the loved one’s eternal rest, but “there is no guarantee that this won’t ever happen.” The course concludes by suggesting the economy of buying directly from a wholesaler: “funeral homes tend to triple the cost of their caskets and sometimes a lot more, we just mark ours up one time. . . . funeral homes can succeed with high markups because most people still buy their caskets from them.”
Many vampire stories, including Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot and Joss Whedon‘s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, feature coffins, as do stories populated with zombies. In The Amityville Horror, George Lutz graciously, if rather oddly, builds coffins for the members of his family. In Homecoming, the war dead rise from their flag-draped coffins to vote. The movie Ed Gein starts with the title character robbing a grave, and, real-life ghoul that he was, Gein actually did rob quite a few graves, both in Plainfield, Wisconsin and in Spirit Land Cemetery, a few miles to the north of his hometown.
As Homecoming suggests, the Veterans Administration will supply an American flag to the next-of-kin of any honorably discharged serviceman or woman, and, incidentally, now allows the Wicca symbol on military headstones. (Other approved emblems include a large variety of Christian crosses, the Buddhist wheel of righteousness, the Jewish Star of David, the angel Moroni, the arrow-and-teepee emblem of the Native American Church of North America, the atheist atom, the Muslim crescent and star, the Hindu religious emblem, and various others.)
At a recent trade show, China introduced the world to a paper coffin, which resembles hardwood, and can be decorated with paintings. It can be easily cremated or buried, and has been used in China for years.
Coffins are also available for pet animals. Some are rectangular pine boxes; others are hardwood miniature versions of adult humans’ coffins, complete with handles on either ides for pallbearers’ use.
“Everyday Horrors: Coffins” is part of a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured in Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.