Caskets have been used in one form or another for almost as long as mankind has roamed the Earth. While today's caskets are usually made of heavy steel, history has shown that they can be composed of a wide variety of materials and take on a variety of forms. The website of one of Batesville Caskets, one of today's leading manufacturers of caskets, outlines some of that variety: In about 695 the Celts created caskets out of simple flat stones that were held together in the shape of a box. In about 1066 Kings and noblemen across the world were buried in luxurious, bejeweled caskets. The Vikings of about 900 AD has maybe the most unique take on caskets that history has to offer. They turned ships and boats into large caskets upon which they would set fire and then set sail to burn at sea.
The first predecessor to the elaborate steel caskets that are probably most commonly used today came in 1848. "Fisk" caskets were among the first airtight, metal caskets ever sold. That change in the manufacturing of caskets was part of a gradual modernization, which culminated in 1885 when legendary general Ulysses S. Grant was buried in a metal casket with a full plate glass top. As steel caskets became common throughout the 1800's, wood was also a popular material for caskets.
Today's caskets continue to be made mostly of steel, but, with the rise in popularity of cremation, caskets made of combustible wood are also very popular. Today's caskets still follow the traditional rectangle design and are still designed to be as airtight as possible. (Since their beginning, a chief aim of caskets has been to preserve a body for as long as possible. Scientists have recently discovered, however, that bodies in airtight caskets tend to decompose more quickly than those in more open caskets.) But variations on the traditional look are also becoming more common. Caskets have been known to come in some very offbeat shapes and designs. Some caskets have been shaped too look like large gym bags, guitars, and even dumpster bins. Others caskets have been painted with tropical scenes, sunsets and sea shells.
While caskets are, of course, typically used for burial of the dead, some more eccentric souls have used them for daily sleeping and other activities. Actress Sarah Bernhardt is rumored to take her bed/casket with her when she travels, and the psychic Criswell is said to prefer sleeping in caskets. Metal musician Malefic is said to have recorded the words to one of his songs while locked in a casket. A number of funeral industry museums have interesting displays about the history of caskets. The Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield Illinois has, among other things, a full-sized reproduction of President Abraham Lincoln's casket, and the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas has an electronic display showing how caskets were made in about 1900. A number of other museums in cities such as Budapest, Hamburg, London and even Paris have intriguing displays about the history of caskets.
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