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Caskets - What's to know about them!

Casket and Coffin Information and Guidance

Caskets are an important feature of most funeral services held in today's modern world. Once very simple pieces made from ordinary plywood (often by a person's friends or family members with no special training), caskets today have definitely graduated. Gone are the days of the pine box coffin, often depicted in movies about the “Wild West.” Instead, even the most modest of today's caskets resemble large, beautifully crafted jewelry boxes intended to store the most precious of keepsakes for eternity. In fact, a careful student of the English language will notice that the word “casket” itself once referred exclusively to the tiny, meticulously designed boxes of wood or metal intended to store precious jewels. When, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coffin making went from being mostly a private, family ritual to a full fledge profession, artists found themselves free to add a stunning array of ornamental designs to these pieces, and, as these new works of art began to become more and more popular marketing specialists adopted the word casket in order to describe just how special these pieces were. Below is some consumer information intended to help families who are experiencing the death of a loved one to understand their options as they look for the perfect casket with which to memorialize their beloved one.

A great number of different types of caskets are available today from retail outlets located in just about every city or accessible via the internet. The selection may, in fact, be astonishing to a person who is not familiar with the huge variety of memorial products that have come available in recent years. It is important to keep in mind that the types of caskets listed below are not, by any means, a complete list. We are just summarizing the types that are most commonly used in funeral services today. But, as environmentally friendly caskets, sculpture caskets, and even sports themed caskets become more and more common, the depiction of what is “common” will certainly evolve into entirely unanticipated areas. As the memorial industry becomes more and more creative, and as the idea of memorializing loved ones in a very special way continues to be a time-honored tradition in modern culture, you can expect that surprising new types of caskets will continue to be introduced each year. But, for now, these are the ones that you are most likely to encounter in a search for a perfect casket.

Wood caskets are perhaps the most popular of casket types in today's culture. These beautiful pieces are hand crafted from fine hardwood and often are reminiscent of fine heirloom furniture. Wood caskets are typically available in oak, mahogany or cherry wood, but they are also available in many other types of exotic woods. For a time, wood caskets were running a distant second in popularity to their cousins the metal caskets, but that has changed in recent years. Concerns over environmental feasibility may have something to do that with. Wood caskets are typically biodegradable and, although it may take a number of years depending on the type of wood used, there is no worry with this type of casket that it will clutter the Earth for centuries to come.

Metal caskets are still a popular choice today, though their popularity has waned a bit in recent decades. These caskets are available in 12 gauge, 16 gauge or 20 gauge steel, and, no matter which of those levels is selected, customers can be assured that their casket will be a very sturdy vessel for their loved one's remains. Metal caskets are often outfitted with special rubber gaskets that are intended to keep the elements out of the closed casket for at least a short time after the casket is buried in the ground. This can be a comforting feature for many families, but some retailers and manufacturers offer it as an optional part of the casket. When this option is available, many families decide against it because experts have determined that the rubber gasket does indeed wither away underground relatively quickly, and dirt and water do end up finding their way into a metal casket after all. In fact, it is important for families to realize that metal caskets are typically no better than wooden caskets when it comes to protecting a body from the elements over time. Metal caskets do not wither away over time as wood caskets do, but they do leak. While most retail establishments and funeral homes are quite honest about this, it is very important for consumers to remember that sales personnel today are prohibited by U.S. Law from promising that a metal casket will protect a body from decay.

Cremation caskets are probably the closest to the pine-box casket of yesteryear. These very simple pieces are made from light-weight wood that is intended to be burned with a body during the cremation process. Because cremation caskets are designed to be destroyed, they are typically very inexpensive, but they do vary in price according to the amenities of their design. Some families of people who are to be cremated will choose to employ a cremation casket with a relatively sophisticated design that will serve as a good memorial for the person whose body will be displayed in it during a funeral service before the cremation.

Nearly all casket types and models are available in oversized versions to accompany those whose body is larger than average. Oversized caskets can be up to 54 inches wide and more than 8 feet long, and it is not entirely unusual for families to opt for an oversized casket even for someone who is of average size. Having extra “breathing” room is a comforting consideration for many who are looking for a casket.

Once you've decided upon a style of casket that suits the needs of your loved one's memory and your family, it is an excellent idea to avail yourself of the many different amenities that are available for caskets. The most common types of amenities are interior decorations that give the casket a comforting look as it is displayed during a funeral. Casket interiors can include plenty of plush padding and pillows, and some can be outfitted with special designs or words (such as a favorite Bible verse) imprinted on the inside lid. It can be quite comforting for a family to contemplate that their special loved one will rest peacefully in an environment designed specially to be a peaceful amenity to a casket. Most caskets can also be outfitted with other amenities such as a safe to store treasured mementos or important documents that a loved one either wants or needs to have accompany him or her in the grave. A casket safe is usually installed in the form of a drawer that can be accessed from the exterior of the casket. In most cases, the safe does not lock – as a conventional safe would – but rather, it is called a safe because it snaps securely shut, protecting the contents from the elements for decades or even centuries. Many people who elect for a safe to be installed on their casket do so with the future's archeologists in mind. Having identification and other important documents easily accessible in a casket will certainly be of great help to historians who may want to piece together a life story many years after the fact. Interiors of caskets can also include shelves on which to mementos can be displayed, and some interiors have special compartments for storing items in very close proximity to a body. It should be noted that these amenities, unlike the safe, should not be considered air-tight for any great length of time. So items place in these areas will likely decay relatively quickly as dirt, water and other elements slowly but surely breach the temporary seals of a casket.

Buying caskets can be a daunting task, especially for a family that is in the midst of grieving a loved one. For this reason, pre-arranging the sale of a casket can be a good idea and most loved-ones will no doubt view it as a great blessing. In today's world, it is becoming increasingly common for people to pick out their own caskets from, say, an online retailer, negotiate a good price, and then have the caskets shipped and stored for future use in a family's storage facility or even a garage. When a person has done this, funeral directors or others involved with planning a memorial service can very easily then simply arrange for the casket to be moved to the site where the body will be prepared for the service. This practice may seem macabre or unusual at first glance – and perhaps many decades ago it would have been. But, as family members of those who have done this will testify, having the casket already picked out and purchased well in advance relieves a great burden and helps assure that a memorial service can be as uplifting and as comforting an experience as possible.

An important thing to keep in mind as you search for a casket, or as you deal with a funeral home in the event a casket was pre-purchased: United States law requires that all funeral homes and cemeteries allow customers to partake of their services while using caskets purchased from other entities. The vast majority of cemeteries and funeral homes eagerly comply with this law, but it's important for consumers to keep it always in mind nevertheless. Most funeral homes and cemeteries in today's market make caskets available for sale to their customers, but consumers can often find similar (or even the exact) caskets available from other retailers for dramatically lower prices. Funeral homes and cemeteries, understandably, do not want to lose a casket sale to a competitor, but they are legally prohibited from making any insinuation that a customer must use a casket purchased from them in order to use their establishment's services. The law that applies to caskets is known as The Funeral Rule and, while it, technically, applies only to funeral homes, courts have ruled that cemeteries must abide by it as well. Violators face a number of civil fines, and they can be certain that consumer groups will spread the news about the violation to as many potential customers as can be found. It is encouraging to note that, the threat of fines and negative publicity are not the chief motivation for most companies in the funeral and cemetery business to follow the law. The vast majority of these companies realize that complying with The Funeral Rule is just a fair and honest way to do business. And, given that customers of the memorial industry are especially vulnerable in their time of grief, owners and managers of these firms generally take a great deal of pride in showering their clients with fairness and compassion.

While this article has been about the basics of caskets, it would be remiss if it did not conclude with a brief mention of the many alternatives to caskets that are available from retailers and others in the memorial industry. Many wonderful memorial services today do not employ the use of a casket at all. Cremation urns already filled with a deceased person's ashes are a common site at funerals as visitors assemble to participate in the ceremony. Likewise, at a growing number of funerals, a deceased person has elected some sort of burial that involves either no casket or a very simple one that might not be suitable for public display at a memorial ceremony. In these cases, the burial is often conducted privately, and, instead of an elaborate casket on display at a public ceremony, a funeral is then held in which photographs and other mementos are the center of attention as visitors assemble.

As with nearly everything else in today's memorial industry, caskets can be as elaborate or as simple as taste, budget and desire requires. This can be a comforting thing for families who have lost a loved one to contemplate as they make arrangements for a most fitting memorial service.

Where do Coffins and Caskets Originate?

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 or hard woods, history alone has proven that they can be composed of a wide variety of materials and take on a variety of forms. The website of Batesville Caskets, one of today's leading manufacturers of caskets, and also the first to produce steel 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. As part of the Viking funeral, they turned ships and boats into large caskets upon which they would set fire and then set sail to burn at sea. While these caskets are all quite interesting, they are outshined by the most famous 'coffins' of all, the Pyramids of Egypt, specifically the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is thought to be commissioned by the Pharaoh Khufu, as a tomb. Now in days, it goes without saying, that caskets have taken on a much more simple appearance, compared to some of the more famous coffins of earlier years, but while that is true, they are definitely more decorative than those that become common during the Industrialization Era.

Wooden Caskets are traditional and common place in many memorial ceremoniesThe 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. While wood caskets were the most popular, and for a long while the only available, steel caskets became common throughout the 1800's, and eventually outsold their wood counterparts. Interestingly enough, one of the main reasons, some believe, that steel caskets so rapidly outsold wood caskets is that many were under the impression that because steel could be sealed better, it preserved it's contents much longer. This turned out to be incorrect, and experts later found out that the better sealing of the caskets actually, in some cases, prompted quicker decomposition than a wood casket would. It was a while before this fact came to the surface though, and steel and metal caskets, for a long time, quickly and easily outsold wood coffins.

Today's caskets continue to be made mostly of steel, but with the rise in popularity of cremation, caskets made of combustible wood have also become very popular. Cremation caskets are special versions of traditional wood caskets that are made of only combustible materials. While they are commonly known as cremation caskets, these caskets are also commonly used as part of natural burials, also known as a green funeral, in which the casket is still interred, but with the intention that it will completely biodegrade over time. This is very different from the earlier hopes that the person would be preserved as long as possible, and many environmentalists feel this is even a better alternative for traditional burials, as it reduces the amount of non-biodegradable materials that are interred into the earth. 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.)

Variations on the traditional look are also becoming more common. Caskets have been known to come in some very offbeat shapes and designs, and some even are highly personalized with photographs or scenery. Some caskets have been shaped too look like large gym bags, and even guitars, while others caskets have been painted with tropical scenes, sunsets and sea shells. Some designers incorporate graphic arts to personalize these caskets, which results in a piece that offers a traditional shape, with a breathtaking appearance. We oursevles, for example, offer a whole selection of these personalized caskets, which feature an array of design styles to select from. These designs range from a field of beautiful roses in bloom, to a military theme that presents the photo of the lost individual, and even a heavenly scene of a dove being released with a heartwarming psalm.

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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