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A box to die for: On coffins and caskets

Maverick Life

MAVERICK LIFE OP-ED

A box to die for: On coffins and caskets

Illustration: Pixabay

When you die and require cremation or burial, unless your culture has other plans for you, you’ll need a casket or coffin. This is when your loved ones will discover that here in South Africa we don’t have much choice.

Despite innovation, it’s still wood, veneers and reinforced steel that remain the favoured local materials for these boxes. Some online window-shopping will demonstrate that local options are restricted along a narrow continuum from “simple” to elaborate, from “less expensive” to “outrageous” and from “acceptable” to the kind of thing that would prevent your entry into the afterlife. And within this sombre gallery is the complicated idea that the box you get is a measure of the life you led, an expensive casket a worthy sacrifice the living should pay to prove their love of the dead.    

But choice does exist – just not much on our own mortal shores. Yet in other places where people die, like the US, Europe and the UK, a blend of eco-technological innovation, environmental awareness, sensitivity to available burial space and cost-consciousness have come to bear on the “death value chain” and its associated rituals. 

Accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis, which has encouraged people to reconsider received ideas about death and dying, including one-time use of expensive caskets, I believe that a profound shift in the “re-normalising” of death is occurring, which is being spearheaded by the “death positive movement” in its many guises, mainly online, and which you can join here

People everywhere seem to be revisiting the importance of the rituals that accompany death, with so many of them having been ruptured or disrupted during lockdown.

The often shocking images we see in the media of graves stretching into the distance, of harried cemetery workers and families huddling in protective gear have now become so commonplace that they are losing their affective power. While I understand the editorial instinct for their use, I am becoming inured to them. Like other members of my hodge-podge hybrid South African consumer culture, mostly still riven with the fading remnants of Judeo-Christianity, I have to some extent been inoculated against grief and loss with a distancing dose of medical science and an overriding belief that death is actually optional, until it happens. But then it does, like it always has, whether from Covid or not.

Choices that need to be made by surviving family and friends can be extremely difficult. With regard to this practical thing, the coffin or casket, a tiny minority of people possess the presence of mind (and enough distrust in others) to choose their own before they die or leave clear instructions that can help a family choose.

But let’s start with the basics. 

Is there a difference between a coffin and a casket, you ask? Well, yes – a casket has four sides, while a coffin is hexagonal, with six. Coffins (from the Latin cophinos meaning basket) have an anthropometric shape, with a widening at the shoulders and narrowing at the feet – they were once referred to as toe-pinchers. The more euphemistically named casket avoids the suggestion of the human form, with a rectangular shape. They’re also usually able to be opened on a central hinge for viewing of the deceased.

Either coffin or casket can also be called a bier, when it includes a stand, or a pall, when used to transport a body, although this traditionally refers to a cloth that covers the box. And thus the term pallbearer, someone who carries the coffin, usually in a team of six. I mention this only for etymology nuts like myself, because “pall” derives from “pallium”, a cloak worn in Roman times, and interestingly also relates to palliate, as in palliative care – to mitigate, which is then, literally, to cloak.

My own dear father, may he rest in peace, was forever shuffling his designated team of pallbearers, and after the occasional minor fracas on the telephone would be heard to erupt, “That’s it! Colin’s out, Cecil’s back in!” This would need to be written down in an increasingly illegible set of instructions for after his death, something that was in frequent focus due to his persistent heart condition and the knowledge that he could pop a gasket at any moment.

Introduced in the US in the mid-1800s, caskets are much more of a one-size-fits-all vibe, as opposed to coffins, which must be tailored. Caskets can be quicker to make, apparently. They came into their own during the American Civil War, when they were needed in large numbers (600,000 people died), and lots of bodies required quick transportation.

In From Coffins to Caskets: An American History, Sarah Hayes writes, “It was the violence combined with the scale of death that led to the ‘the beautification of death’ in America during this period, and it was the shift in both name and shape of the coffin that was an effort to distance the living from the unpleasantness of death, and the hexagonal coffins were part of that distancing.”

You might therefore expect your friendly family undertaker to ask if you prefer a coffin or a casket. Jewish tradition, meanwhile, holds that no metal may be buried with a person, and hence you’ll find only simple wooden coffins with rope handles and wooden pegs in Jewish burials.

Image: Pixabay

The earliest recorded use of wooden boxes for burial dates from around 5000 BC in Shaanxi Province, China. Stone or clay, usually baked around the body, was more commonly used across Europe and Asia in ancient times, and then especially for nobility, for kings and chieftains and the like.

Closer to home, I’ve found it difficult to plumb African mortuary archaeologies for evidence of pre-colonial coffin use, and although entire hollowed wooden tree trunks have been used in some parts of the world, there is no record of this anywhere in Africa.

An accurate historical account of burial in Africa is way beyond the remit of this little exploration, mind you. Besides, as stated by the editors of the Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial, Liv Nilsson Stutz and Sarah Tarlow, “It is impossible… to draw out any meaningful generalizations from the huge variability of burial practices encountered through time and space across the [African] continent.”

Nonetheless, they provide some fascinating evidence of people being buried in ceramic jars in the western Sahara, and plenty of ornate burial chambers throughout other parts of Africa, usually tied to patriarchal hierarchies. Certainly, burial has always been locally ritualistic, and historically, seems to have also functioned as an opportunity to assert notions of kin, lineage, power and land ownership, to confirm social status, and most importantly, in the pan-African context, preserve the continuity between the living and the dead.

In this sense, the centrality of African belief systems relating to Ancestors encourages the idea that comfort for those departing this world is paramount for their entering the next. What I have discovered in my amateur sleuthing is that coffins became widely available only in the 1700s due to a change in English law which had ramifications for English colonies and outposts, allowing “common” people to use them. I guess coffins became the norm here in South Africa as well, as a departure from using cloth or some equivalent to wrap bodies in simpler ways.

Searching online for “coffins in Africa” will result in a deluge of images of the Ghanaian variety, popularised by Kane Kwei, a carpenter who started making his own custom “fantasy caskets” in Accra. Kwei had been apprenticed to another local carpenter who had made a cocoa-pod coffin for a local chief. Allegedly inspired by this, when his grandmother died in 1951, Kwei built her a casket in the shape of an aeroplane, and kickstarted a flourishing local industry that remains firmly within the ambit of quaint stereotyping wherever there’s wi-fi. Cigarettes, fish, Ray-Bans, soccer boots… anything goes.

Probably a lot cheaper than these bespoke wood-carved creations, but at prices that nonetheless still threaten life as we know it, is a version of “fantasy coffin” available in South Africa, which are simply printed and personalised caskets. Think low-resolution Louis Vuitton logos or copy-and-paste crests of Orlando Pirates or Liverpool Football Club, sometimes even with images of the players. These are available, from certain enterprising undertakers looking to expand their casketware, for a mere R65,000, or 45K if you just want to hire one. Can you afford to die?

Nowadays, while so-called eco-coffins remain a niche offering locally, amounting to not much more than a bit of cloth or cardboard, elsewhere wicker, rattan, mulberry pulp, banana leaf, bamboo, wool and cane are among the materials used. Some of these are truly beautiful, but alas unavailable in South Africa, and are only imported as single items on an occasional basis.   

Interesting to me is the shift from a desire to “preserve” the deceased in a metal coffin with sealing gaskets, which is still the norm in some places, to the growing idea of transforming the deceased and returning the corpse to the earth, the dust to dust cycle. In this respect, the hottest new material to receive media attention as a coffin material is mycelium, the vegetative or thread-like parts of a fungus, called hyphae.

The world’s first “living coffin” is made by self-styled Dutch myco-savant, Bob Hendrikx. The Living Cocoon or Loop coffin accelerates the decomposition and reintegration of human remains into the earth, requiring low-impact manufacture containing zero pollutants, and, through “myco-remediation”, actively removes contaminants from the soil, including heavy metals. But, to be honest, I think recycled cardboard does the same job. And it can also be impregnated with spores, which you can buy online. (Most coffins used for cremation these days are heavy cardboard too, by the way.)

Although the mycelium coffin accelerates things (around five years for full decomposition), it’s nowhere near as fast as the full-on composting of human remains that is now legal in Washington State, US. Here it’s called “natural organic reduction”, and for $5,500, after no less than 30 days, the compost that used to be your loved one is sent off to help regenerate a local forest, with a small bag provided for your own use. Perhaps good on your baby tomatoes?

Composting does away with the idea of coffins altogether, but it feels like we’re stuck with them for a while. So why not make your own? I’ve certainly found a strong tradition of exclusivity and marking-up the price of coffins and caskets, as they make their way from manufacturer to wholesaler to the funeral parlour. If you want to make your own and need some coffin-appropriate bits and bobs, you can find the handles and rails and things (called coffin furniture) online, and do like the popular coffin clubs that get together to craft their own in New Zealand.

Then again, where would you keep it? Caskets are hefty. If space is an issue, perhaps the most cost-effective (and incidentally also the most environmentally friendly bet) is to make a bulk order of flat-pack cardboard coffins for you and yours. The good news is that a Durban-based company called Ecologico has developed a burial-suitable flat-pack cardboard casket, tested to carry even your heaviest relatives and able to be assembled in under two minutes.

Although this may not be the first recommendation that bereaved family members looking for a cheaper option might receive from their friendly cost-conscious undertaker, cardboard coffins can easily be customised as part of a group crafting activity with paints and kokis and glitter markers. Imagine that! Playing the favourite music of your loved one and gathered around, not only could you decorate the box but also stick a few pin-ups under the lid and perhaps sneak a few chocolates in too for the afterlife.

In my preparations for a memorial service next week I am reminded of this prerogative – that we are gathering to celebrate a life. Death – wrenching, sad, final, confounding, often unfair, sometimes shocking, also reflects the variety of life. We need choices in the way we celebrate it, even as we inhabit the old rituals which have held us through the ages. As my dear father taught me, whom I carried once in a closed pine box as part of the Pallbearer A Team – if you want anything done in this life, then do it yourself. Perhaps your surviving loved ones will be grateful. DM/ML

Original design by Jade Klara

Sean O’Connor is an end-of-life soul companion and the host of the How To Die podcast. You can listen and subscribe to it on Spotify or Apple podcasts.

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  • I heard that for cremations, the coffin is in fact merely RENTED, as the body is cremated without the coffin. Can anyone confirm this?

  • To minimise or avoid funeral costs, what is the least-cost procedure one can suggest to his/her executor or legatees? I have registered as a tissue/organ donor but am not sure if this avoids the need to engage an undertaker. Any advice would be welcome.

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