Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Caskets 101

It’s been a few months since I’ve added a new entry to the Ask Turners Blog, so this month, I thought I would tell you more than you ever wanted to know about caskets.

The coffin as we know it, like many aspects of modern funerals, goes back to the ancient Egyptians thousands of years ago. The Egyptians used coffins to protect the dead, as it was their belief that the dead would need the use of their body again in the afterlife. In predynastic times, nearly 7,000 years ago, the Egyptians would construct wooden scaffolds around the body after it was placed in the ground to protect it. This then evolved into wood boxes or large clay jars into which the body would be placed, and finally into the elaborate solid gold coffins like that of King Tut, shown to the left. Their coffins were anthropoid in shape, or shaped like the human body; widest at the shoulders and narrowest at the feet. The practice of constructing anthropoid coffins carried into the early 20th century with the iconic hexagonal coffin we see lined up outside the Undertaker's shop in old Western movies. The problem with anthropoid coffins was that each one had to be custom built for the person who would be placed inside of it. It was then that the rectangular caskets that we are familiar with today began to be mass-produced. It was also then that we first see the use of the word "casket" rather than "coffin." The word "casket" was derived from a French word that means "a box for precious things" and was used as a euphemism for the rather grim-sounding "coffin."

Today, we have two basic kinds of caskets: metal and wood. Wood caskets are constructed from a variety of hard and softwoods. Each one is handmade and finished like a fine piece of furniture. Recently, some companies have started offering veneer caskets for cremation purposes. They are of a lower cost than a solid wood casket and offer the same natural beauty of wood, but they are not designed to withstand much stress and Turner's advises that they only be used for cremations and not in-ground burials. Wood caskets do not offer much protection for the body. Those who wish to have a wood casket and still have the peace-of-mind that the body is protected should consider purchasing a good sealing-type vault to protect it once it is buried.

Metal caskets offer a much wider range of options for the consumer to choose from. Let's start by explaining the different type of metals that are available in metal caskets. Most metal caskets you see are made from steel. Standard steel caskets come in several different thicknesses, or gauges, with 20 ga. being the thinnest (about the thickness of a coffee can) and 16 ga. the thickest. Steel caskets are available in either non-protective or protective models. Non-protective steel caskets are spot-welded together and close via some form of a latch. Protective steel caskets are seamlessly welded all around. The "protective" part comes from its method of closure. Protective caskets have a rubber gasket that goes the whole way around the base of the casket where it meets the lid. When closed, four steel pins from the lid go into four holes in the base. By using a special "key," we turn a crank on the foot end of the casket which drives a steel pin through the four pins from the lid and pulls the lid down tight on the gasket. Protective caskets are like Tupperware in that they are designed to "burp" out any gases that may form inside the casket without allowing any gases or liquids from the outside to enter. Generally speaking, most thinly gauged caskets will be non-protective and most thickly gauged caskets will be protective. However, even if you purchase a protective casket, remember that it is just plain steel and is still subject to rust and corrosion so, again, purchasing a good sealing-type vault would be advisable.

A step up from regular steel caskets are stainless steel caskets. These are available generally in the thicker gauges and are all protective. Stainless steel caskets are available in brushed finishes that show off the natural beauty of the metal. Beyond stainless steel, there are copper and bronze caskets. Copper and bronze are both semi-precious metals and extremely resistant to corrosion and other forms of degradation. Naturally, all copper and bronze caskets are protective models. It is worth noting here that with stainless steel, copper, and bronze caskets, if you purchase a vault that is lined in metal, is should be the same metal as the casket that is going to be placed in it. Placing a bronze casket in a copper vault will actually degrade the metal of both the casket and the vault. A copper casket should be placed in a copper vault and so on.

Just for fun, here is a picture of the Promethean model, which is manufactured by Batesville Casket Company. It is constructed of polished 48 oz. solid bronze with 14K gold hardware. The interior is custom made to the purchasers instructions. Needless to say, the Promethean is the best casket money can buy.

So, we've talked about what caskets are made of, now let's discuss the many different things that can be done to the outside, or shell of the casket. In the last few years, personalization has become a mantra of the funeral industry and many new and exciting options for caskets have become available to the consumer.

The obvious place to start would be the finish of the casket. Most metal caskets are painted. Today, casket finishes are a lot like automotive finishes. It is a base coat - clear coat system usually applied with a pneumatic paint gun by a professional painter. Basic caskets are one color over the entire casket while higher end caskets have two-tone finishes with shading and, in some cases, areas of exposed brushed metal. Areas that are brushed are, of course, painted over with a clear coat in order to protect the metal. Recently, a company called Art Caskets has developed a series of large decals that are professionally applied to the outside shell of a casket. They offer many different designs that can add to the personalization of the funeral. The only disadvantage is that they are only visible when the casket is closed. Turner's is an authorized dealer of Art Caskets.

Next, let's discuss the shell of the casket. The standard casket shape is rectangular. Basic caskets are welded together at the corners and have a decorative piece of hardware attached to the corner to hide the welds. In higher-end caskets, the corners are actually finished. Round-end caskets have rounded corners and urn-end caskets have rounded corners and a convex, urn-shaped corner. These are only found on protective model caskets. One of the caskets Turner's offers, the Pieta, actually has an enclave cut into each of the corners which holds a miniature of Michelangelo's Pieta statue from the Vatican. A new feature that has come out recently has been caskets with interchangeable corner pieces called Life Symbols. These allow families to choose different corners that represent the life of the deceased, such as golf scenes, John Deere tractors, flowers, etc. The corners can then be removed from the casket and kept by the family after the service. There are also two different types of handles for caskets: stationary bar handles and swing bar handles. Stationary bar handles are rigidly fixed to the body of the casket and are usually found on basic caskets. Swing bar handles are found on higher-end caskets and are on hinges so that they swing away from the casket to provide room for a hand to grip the bar when the casket is being carried.

Lastly, the interior of the casket is another area where personalization has really blossomed. Modern caskets have two basic types of interiors: velvet and crepe. Most basic caskets will have crepe interiors while higher-end caskets generally have velvet interiors, but it is not carved in stone. Some people, myself included, find velvet to be too heavy of a fabric, especially in the summertime. Most of the personalization to casket interiors involves the back panel. Some caskets, like the Boyer model we offer, have interchangeable back panels where virtually anything you can imagine can be embroidered into the fabric. Click here to view all of the designs Turner's offers to be embroidered into the back panel. Another option for the back panel is a screen printed photo that is inserted into the back panel. This allows basically anything you can think of to be made into the back panel of the casket. Some caskets also have an enclave built into the back panel for an additional Life Symbols figurine.

This would be a good place to mention the difference between full and half couch caskets. If you're from Western Pennsylvania, you are familiar with full couch caskets. They have the full lid open. Half couch caskets are like the ones in the photos I've included in this blog where only half of the lid opens. Full couch caskets are only used in Western Pennsylvania, Southwestern New York, Northern Maryland, and parts of Indiana. The rest of the country uses half couch caskets. Don't ask me why, because I'm not sure that anyone really knows for sure!

One of the most recent things to come out of the world of funeral service is the concept of green burials. Green burials are deemed eco-friendly and are designed to be as environmentally conscious as possible. The body is not embalmed and is buried in some form of a biodegradable casket. Green caskets are made from wicker, bamboo, or wood so that it can completely biodegrade. Naturally, to allow this to happen, green funerals do no utilize burial vaults, or if they must, it is usually done by placing just the base of the vault upside-down over the casket so that the bottom is still exposed to the elements. Green cemeteries do not have headstones or markers of any kind. Instead, families are given the GPS coordinates of the grave to assist them in locating the grave.

Congratulations on your successful completion of Caskets 101! You are now an expert on caskets, casket construction, and casket interiors. If you have any questions about caskets, please feel free to email me at and I'd be happy to answer your questions.