Steel caskets have an interesting history, not the least of which includes the many intriguing custom-made caskets that are on-display at the National Museum of Funeral History. Some of the steel caskets that are part of the museum’s “A life well lived” display include steel caskets sculpted in the form of an airplane, an Eagle, a car, and even a Lobster. These steel caskets are all intricately designed to capture the fun-loving spirit of the loved-ones who will ride in them to eternity.
But aside from that intriguing display, steel caskets – which have, in the last 30 years, returned as king of the casket industry -- have an important history. Here are a few highlights.
The word casket itself -- as it is currently used as a synonym for coffin – owes its modern meaning to the advent of steel caskets. In the nineteen and early 20th centuries, caskets were known exclusively as coffins and they were almost all made of wood. As the Industrial revolution took hold across America, that trend gradually changed as steel became more readily available for use in making steel caskets. Consumers in those days were squeamish about the idea of decomposing bodies, and they most comfortable with steel caskets because, so the average consumer thought, steel caskets would preserve a body for longer periods of time than their wood counterparts. (In reality, experts have discovered in recent years, steel caskets, for a variety of reasons, actually tend to speed up the decomposition process, and experts are careful to warn consumers that no casket – no matter how sturdy or airtight – can be expected to keep decomposition at bay for more than a few days.) So, steel caskets became, by far, the most common type of casket in America by very early in the 20th century. But, despite their popularity, they were still called “steel coffins,” about that time.
Competitiveness in the casket-sales business led one or two sellers to remake the image of caskets into a more luxurious product. Since many caskets of that time resembled larger versions of the jewelry “casket,” the makers of steel caskets decided to use “casket” as a marketing euphemism for coffin. And the name has stuck ever since. Steel caskets are occasionally, today, referred to as coffins, but, in general, that term is applied more to wooden coffins. Steel caskets, meanwhile, still almost exclusively enjoy the luxurious connotations of their euphemistic new name.
Armed with their new name, steel caskets went on to outsell wood caskets by the millions through the early 20th century. World Word’s I and II, however, required most steel in America be used for the war effort, so, for about 20 years, steel caskets took a back seat to their hard-wood cousins.
Once the wars were over, however, Americans could not wait to jump back upon the bandwagon for steel caskets, and the product quickly became the best selling in the industry again.
Steel caskets remain the best seller still today. But they are quickly being challenged today by wood caskets. As consumers are becoming more aware that steel caskets are no better.
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