Death in the Victorian Era part 8: Coffins
“Nothing can be more hideous, than the raised metal work, called coffin furniture that is so generally used at the present time; heathen emblems, posturing angels, trumpets, death’s heads and cross bones, are mingled together in a glorious confusion, and many of them partake of a ludicrous character.” A. Welby Pugin, Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament and Costume, 1844
One of the peculiar rituals of Victorian Era death was the “turning of the screws”. It became part of the rituals of placing a deceased family member in a coffin. The head of the family, or a very close relative, would place the lid of the coffin on the casket, then they themselves, not the undertaker, would take very ornate screws, and twist them into place, sealing the coffin lid.
Some coffins of this period also contained viewing windows. Many of you may of heard of other Victorian period innovations such as “saved by the bell”, the coffin that contained a wire mechanism that went up to small bell to let passer-by know you weren’t dead, and to come and rescue you!
Coffins in this period ranged from the cheap, pauper burial coffin to elaborate decorative coffins with tin plate embellishments and ornate carvings.
In 1848, Almond Fisk, and American, patented a metal coffin dubbed “Fisk Airtight Coffin of Cast
or Raised Metal” that he thought would revolutionise the funeral industry. The coffin looked like a large metal sarcophagus, decorated with Victorian era symbology of angels, crosses skulls or whatever the client desired – it didn’t not prove to be a hit, as many people were scared that if they were not actually dead, they had zero chance of escaping from this coffin.
There were also wicker “cooling coffins”, these particular coffins were not for burial, but for the family to lay the body in to keep it safe from flies and animals whilst the “wake” occurred (the wake in this period was a three or day 24 hour watch of the body to make sure someone wasn’t just in a coma, but actually dead).
Coffins bound for above ground mausoleums or family crypts would be lined on the interior, (or “triple shelled”) with lead and could weigh up to a quarter of a ton.
An engrave breastplate was one of the most important features of any Victorian era coffin wand was usually one of the first pieces added to a coffin. These plates, even found on pauper’s coffins, were usually highly decorated and contained the name age and date of death of the deceased and motifs, religious iconography and were sometimes adorned with biblical scripture.
The insides of coffins were usually lined with black silks, crape and other expensive materials and handmade pillows under the body and head. The outside of coffins featured the previously mentioned ornate screws, but also, ornate, metal lifting handles, and sometimes ornate metal hinges – the metals could range from tin, iron, and brass, to silver and even gold!
Next week: Death in the Victorian Era part 9: Funeral Mutes
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