Limestone from Assos, a small town in present-day north-west Turkey, was attributed with the property of accelerating the decomposition of corpses. The lithos sarkophagos – flesh-eating stone – served not only as the sole material for early sarcophagi, but was also used in other receptacles for dead bodies with a view to bringing about rapid decay. All stone coffins gradually came to be known as sarcophagi, as ultimately did coffins made of other materials. These days, the word sarcophagus is mostly taken to mean a magnificent and prominently displayed coffin, most commonly made of a resistant material, which would often be associated with outstanding or wealthy people.
In a cave, in the earth: burials in the Stone Age
Apart from the simple dumping of corpses, which is probably the oldest form of burial, lowering bodies into the earth has been the usual form for the burial of the dead since time immemorial. In order to protect the corpse from touching the soil, it was wrapped in animal skins, mats or linen bandages etc. or lain in a coffin made of wickerwork, wood, clay or stone, and later also of metal.
However, vessels made of clay (pithoi), smaller ones for children and correspondingly larger ones for adults, were also aimed at protecting the dead. Individual or collective graves served as burial grounds. Starting from the oldest grave forms such as caves or pits, they were laid out as hill, chamber, dome or stone box graves. The stone box grave – a single grave lined with stone slabs and enclosed by a stone slab ceiling – took the earth pit as the basis for its architectural form and is considered the predecessor of the sarcophagus.
From “dead tree” to wooden coffin
The custom of burying the deceased in hollowed-out tree trunks can be traced back to the Neolithic period in Northern and Central Europe. It is likely that this initially involved old trees that had become hollow, and later oak trunks that had been split and hollowed out lengthwise by means of the use of suitable tools. Dead bodies were placed in the lower part lined with an animal skin – usually a cowhide – and covered with their own coat or blankets. The upper part was then lain over them. It is still being investigated whether the dialectal designation of the wooden coffin as a “dead tree” (“Totenbaum” in German), which was still common in the 19th century, can be traced back to the tree coffin or whether it was created at a later date.
In areas with few trees, coffins were inevitably made from alternative materials or from imported wood. This meant that not only were the gates of the Egyptian temples made from the cedars of Lebanon, but also the sarcophagi of the upper classes. The common coffins were produced from the wood of the Sycamore, which was native to the area.
Stone for the upper classes, wooden coffins for the common people
Wooden coffins were in common use from the year 2100 B.C. For the burial of high-ranking personalities, sarcophagi made of stone, chest-shaped, in the shape of a house or later copying the outline of the human body, were already in use in ancient Egypt. Their walls were either smooth, or decorated with texts or relief images.
There were also primitive wooden coffins and cardboard coffins made from old papyri glued together. The burial often took place without any form of coffin, because suitable funds would not have been available.
Coffins had also been known in Mesopotamia since the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C, but were not in general use. Besides basalt, clay was often used as a material for this. In the Cretan-Mycenaean period, clay coffins appeared in chest form in the 14th century B.C. In the Greek motherland, however, coffins made of stone were hardly used until the 2nd century. In Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), on the other hand, marble coffins from the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. have been found alongside figuratively-painted clay coffins from between 540 and 470 B.C.
Coffins made of marble and porphyry in the Roman Empire
Coffins in box or kline form (kline – a rest with a bent head end) made of clay, stone or even alabaster – sometimes even painted – had particularly been in use in Etruria since the middle of the 3rd century B.C. In the Roman Empire, coffins only came into use with the abandoning of cremation at the end of the 2nd century A.D.
Following Etruscan and late-Greek models, the Roman coffin consisted mainly of marble, partly decorated or adorned with reliefs. Only the Emperor had the privilege of being buried in a porphyry coffin.
From ornate sarcophagus sculptures to the unadorned Middle Ages
From the middle of the 3rd century, Christian coffin design came into being. Numerous workshops in Rome, Asia Minor, southern France (Arles) and Spain produced figure, frieze and passion coffins that depicted biblical figures, scenes from the life of Jesus and the Passion of Christ. In the second half of the 4th century, with the spread of city gate burials in Italy, representational scenes took their place. In the 5th century, Christian coffin design experienced a period of rejuvenation, which in isolated cases extended into the early Middle Ages. In general, however, the coffins of the early Middle Ages were mostly unadorned stone affairs. Alongside this, the re-using of ancient sarcophagi for the burial of high-ranking deceased personages was common practice until the late Middle Ages.
Tumba: a sarcophagus without remains
The Middle Ages preserved the basic form of the ancient sarcophagus in the form of the “tumba”, in which no dead person was actually laid to rest. The tumba evolved into a monument built over the deceased buried in the church floor – and thus a kind of high grave reserved for princes and the high nobility. In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, this sarcophagus, which symbolised the burial, often became the centre of a magnificent tomb.
The custom of cremation burials, which can be traced back to the Neolithic period and was at times even the predominant form of burial, increasingly became the prerogative of the rich, as large quantities of fuel were needed to build the pyre. In areas lacking sufficient quantities of timber, it was a form of burial reserved solely for distinguished and high-ranking personalities.
Coffins made of wood: a luxury in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, the burial of bodies was increasingly seen as a Christian duty. In 785, Charlemagne finally had the cremation of corpses banned throughout his empire (Edict of Paderborn). Nevertheless, until the late Middle Ages, it was often only the bodies of rich or high-ranking persons that were buried in coffins made of stone or wood.
Everyone else was wrapped, as we know from the burial of Lazarus, in linen bandages, in mats or tarred sacks (so-called tanners) or sewn into linen cloths.
The body – but also the wooden coffin – was carried to the place of burial or to the site of the sarcophagus on a bier, which in its appearance was either similar to the lower part of the coffin equipped with carrying rods or to the type of stretcher common today. “Laying out” therefore originally meant “laying on a bier”.
Burial in a coffin? A question of efficiency and privilege.
The social position of the deceased alone was the decisive factor as to whether the burial took place with or without a coffin. Churchyards, both in town and in the countryside, were mostly small. Existing graves had to be occupied again as quickly as possible. Burials without a coffin avoided any delay to the decomposition process and allowed the grave to be re-occupied after a shorter period of time.
In various cities – for example in 1632 in Nuremberg – the privilege of being buried in a coffin was therefore subject to a tax. Due to the “wasteful use of wood”, burial in a coffin was considered to be a luxury and the reason for the lack of space in graveyards, where wooden coffins had been increasingly used from the 16th century onwards.
Once the right originally granted only to Christian martyrs or the clergy to be buried in church and monastery vaults was also made available to the nobility and the wealthy bourgeoisie, who made ample use of this entitlement, there gradually came to be a shortage of space here too, which in some cases led to the expansion of vaults located under the church. Burial in a coffin, usually one of stone, is likely to have been common, but not the rule. Indications as to how or whether the deceased were placed in coffins are not to be found in the older church records.
As a study in 1979 of the tomb in Klosterneuburg Monastery, a simple three-chamber stone box grave, showed, the late wife of Margrave Leopold, Agnes, the daughter of Emperor Henry IV, who died in 1143, was buried without a coffin and in no more than a simple woollen cloth.
Since the church vaults, like the graves in cemeteries, were usually raised a little above the ground, the removal of these elevations was demanded as early as the 9th century on the occasion of two Carolingian synods. In 1566, Pope Pius V finally decreed that all coffins protruding above the floor must be sunk. Burial in churches, however, was still allowed and it was only under Emperor Joseph II that this practice was limited and gradually abolished.
From the 16th century: wooden coffins on the rise
Although already well-known in the 9th century, the wooden coffin only began to gain ground towards the end of the 16th century. However, it still remained unaffordable for the poorer classes. In some areas, the deceased were therefore carried to their graves on so-called corpse boards (“Totenbretter” in German), but the use of a communal coffin, which served exclusively to transport the deceased to the graveyard and could therefore be used again, was also common at that time.
Southern Germany and Austria: no coffins until the 19th century
In northern and central Germany, even the poorest parishioners were provided with a coffin from the parish funds as early as the 16th century. In both southern Germany and Austria, burial without a coffin was still common in some areas in the 19th century. Nevertheless, the coffin was already part of funereal culture – especially at the time of Emperor Joseph II. A burial order announced by court decree on 23rd August and 13th September 1784 that “corpses are not to be buried in chests” met with fierce resistance. As early as January 1785, this provision had to be repealed and the use of coffins was again permitted.
More hygiene regulations, more coffins
From the second half of the 18th century, the modern hygienic view of the funeral system and the setting of appropriate deadlines to prevent the burial of the only apparently dead led to the establishment of chambers for the dead and subsequently mortuaries. The sanitary function of the coffin in these chambers and mortuaries probably contributed significantly to the fact that, in the towns at least, by the end of the 18th century hardly anyone was ever buried without a coffin.
At the beginning of the 19th century, new cemeteries, mostly located outside or on the outskirts of villages, were created and expanded. As a result, family plots were no longer limited to the nobility or the wealthy classes of the population, and coffin burials became common practice.
Coffins, from simple to opulent
Although burials in the ground ultimately meant that the coffin was hidden from view, the form and decoration of the wooden coffin also changed, usually combined with a change in burial customs. Sanitary regulations regarding the nature of the coffins also had an impact on the materials used and the design of the coffin.
The first six-sided coffins were mostly flat, roughly timbered boxes without handles or decorations. The pall, richly embroidered with gold or silver thread and often decorated with guild signage, was spread over the coffin. In the 17th and 18th centuries, coffins were given baroque forms and were also decorated with various symbols, including the palm branch. Although coffins became simpler again in the course of the 19th century, this style often continues to influence the design of coffins to this day.
Bronze and tin decorations were also replaced by those made of embossed cardboard, and the coffin covers and fringes produced by the tailoring trade also fell victim to changed tastes. At the beginning of the 20th century they were replaced by embossed coffin wallpaper, which – mainly in southern Germany and Austria – was used to decorate the outer surface of softwood coffins.
Together with the change in coffin shapes, coffin handles and coffin feet were also redesigned. Silver-plated or gold-plated metal handles, as well as hemp ropes with trimmings and tassels as handles gave way to bronzed handles or handles galvanised in antique colours. Today, the handles are mainly made of plastic.
Also, in terms of the coffin feet, the heads of angels, lions or eagles were replaced by angular or spherical feet adapted to the coffin shape
From colour coding to individuality
Until the 17th century and to some extent beyond it, the colour of the coffins depended partly on the marital status and partly on the age of the deceased. Coffins for adults or married people were brown or black, with those for children or single people being white, light blue, green, yellow or red. Colouring – where coffins are not simply left in their natural state – now depends more on individual or demand-oriented considerations.
Metal coffins were produced in the Middle Ages or even later mainly by coppersmiths or tinsmiths. Since the middle of the 19th century, they have also been produced by machine. Coffins made of copper or tin were mainly used for burials in crypts. The coffins in the Imperial Crypt at the Capuchins in Vienna, probably among the most famous tin coffins, reveal the splendour that these could exhibit. They were created for the deceased “members of the Royal House of Austria”.
These days, metal coffins made of zinc or copper sheet are mainly used when legal regulations do not permit the use of coffins made of other materials or only do so under certain conditions. One of these requirements, the airtight sealing of a coffin, can also be achieved by using a metal insert.
Fir, oak, beech and precious woods: coffins made of any wood
The main material used for the production of coffins is still wood.
However, while in the 16th century coffins were mainly made of fir, in his economic-technological encyclopaedia (Berlin 1824) Johann Georg Krünitz also mentions both oak and beech. His work does however note that a decree of the Prussian government dated 11th August 1795 recommends that “subjects” use fir or beech coffins to protect the oak forests.
In addition to explanations about the construction, appearance and material treatment of the wooden coffin, the encyclopaedia also describes the cargo or parade coffin as, “a coffin which is not only decorated with an abundance of external ornaments in the form of carvings, velvet, gold and silver tassels or fringes, but which is also lined with velvet and silk on the inside, and in which princes and other great and rich people are usually displayed to the people in parade after they have passed away; the deceased is lain in a so-called insert coffin, and this is then placed in the parade coffin.”
Coffins made of wood: indispensable for centuries
In the 20th century, foreign precious woods also came to be used in coffin production in Europe alongside domestic wood species. However, they were overwhelmingly produced from oak, beech, larch, fir, spruce and pine wood.
Wood and natural stone are considered to be the oldest building and work materials used by man, but they have also always served as material for coffins. Even during the two world wars, when due to a shortage of materials the most diverse materials such as cardboard, plaster, plywood were proposed and sometimes even used for coffin production, the wooden coffin remained an indispensable part of funereal culture. Even though natural stone has been replaced by metal, and new materials are used in many areas, wood is likely to remain the material of choice in coffin production.