Why are coffins shaped like that?

This question came up in my wife’s bible study class this evening, and since I’ve been accused of having a head full of useless random facts, it was passed along to me. Unfortunately, that isn’t one of them. So… why are coffins shaped like that? Cecil doesn’t seem to have enlightened anyone about it, the hamsters were not inclined to answer, and the only semi-credible idea I found searching Google was that it helped to keep the corpse from rolling about, though why the corpse would need to be comfortable I don’t know.

Any 19th century history experts with a specialization in early American funeral directing like to take a shot?


like what?

Coffins are shaped to hold the bodies they are intended for. There is no other reason.

The stereotypical coffin is wider at about “shoulder height” and narrows at the top.

/     \
\     /
  \  /

Like that, but… not so pointy at the bottom.

Uh… that’s obviously a disjointed attempt at drawing, but maybe you get the idea?

I assume you are referring to the old wooden caskets which were narrow at the feet and wide at the shoulders for obvious reason I would think. Thus using less lumber and still accomodating the corpse. It would also let pallbearers know which end is which. Might be nice to know without having to pull nails before burial.

An arrow and/or this side up would seem a little inconsiderate to me.

just a WAG on my part…and what Q.E.D. said too. In this case, one size does not fit ALL. Seems I recall one fellow being buried in a piano case. :slight_smile:

Nowdays most caskets are simply rectangular.

And don´t forget the classic Wild West cliche of the undertaker taking measures of the cowboys before a firefight. :smiley:

For those who are interested, the traditional 19th century coffin-shape is called a “toe-pincher”.

Interestingly, compact sleeping bags are rather similar in shape, so I’m going for the ‘economy of materials’ explanation, also like compact sleeping bags, coffins aren’t designed to be comfortable, just to fit properly.

For the record, the ‘bend’ in the sides at the point of the shoulders is usually not a joint, but an actual bend in the timber, created by a process called ‘kerf bending’ - a series of transverse parallel cuts are made in the inner face of the timber, allowing it to compress on the inner side of the bend without splintering.

Think honeycomb for bodies. Pack in bodies, head to toe with the smallest perimeter. The Coffin shape will emerge as the most effecient.

Large womb shapes are more difficult to manufacture.

Perhaps the result of constructing a coffin this way makes it seem obvious that the reason is it ‘fits the shape of the body’, but that seems to be a lot of work for questionable results. Not all of the world was lumber-poor, and it certainly would be more labor-intensive to construct such a shape.

Indicating which end was the head could certainly be accomplished more subtly than you seem to think necessary.

Actually, I think the sleeping bag shape is intended to reduce the volume of the bag, thereby conserving body heat. I did *not * know that the sides were single pieces, I had thought it was joinery. That would seem to save a bit of labor.

Thanks for that name - that gives me something else to search for. Thanks also to all who responded, if anyone comes up with more info I would appreciate hearing about it.


You may be right, although I suspect that the requirement to pack down into a small volume is also a factor.

So, from everything I’ve found the “toe-pincher” coffin is a European design brought to the US and done away with for the most part due to cost. It was cheaper to make a simple pine box.

Also, folks here really aren’t comfortable with their own mortality. So, the term casket became popular. Coffins became square caskets and we quit having the big wakes that used to be popular.
“Okay he’s dead now, let’s get on with it” mentality, you know, let’s not dwell on it.

The only reason I could come up with for the original hexagon design was that it would stay where it was buried. Many places are subject to flooding…often the cemeteries would be filled with coffins that had “floated” to the surface due to the soggy ground.

The wedge shape and heavier top end supposedly was less likely to float than a simple box. True or not, I couldn’t say, but I know for a fact that New Orleans (flood plain) and other cities as well have slabs on top of graves for this reason. I have seen a few caskets that have done just that.

PS I did find one site that claimed hexagon coffins had something to do with the fear of vampires or some such BS :rolleyes:

Well, if you fold the arms over the chest vampire-style, it gives you a little extra space for the elbows. If the elbows fit in the vertex of the wide part, then it may keep the arms from flopping all willy-nilly about. Just a guess.


“One thing you will discover
When you get next to one another
Is everybody needs some elbow room, elbow room.
It’s nice when you’re kind of cozy
but not when you’re tangled nose to nosy
Oh everybody needs some elbow,
needs a little elbow room…”

Actually, for the most part, coffins AREN’T (and WEREN’T) generally shaped that way. It’s just a ‘cartoon’ or iconic media image.

In some times and places, materials were scarce (recall that labor-intensive vs. material intensive methods were the rule until sometime in the 20th century, and are often still the rule in the Third World). Space may have been a facto in some cases (the coffin shape you refer to is an elongated hexagon which can be tessellated or tiles on a flat place with no gaps, and is nore humanoid in form and therefore more efficient than a rectangular casket). but rectangular burial cases, bone boxes, etc. have been the most common rigid form for thousands of years (wrapping in burial cloths was more common in most of history).

In the US, the nature of funerals changed dramatically during the Civil War. This was the first time bodies were sent home from the battle, and the funeral industry bloomed under the influx of bodies (The four years of the US Civil War had 10x the soldier fatalities of the much longer Vietnam War, and more than WWI as well. These deaths were dwarfed by the civilian casualties from hunger, disease, etc. in the disruption caused by the war.)

The Union and Confederate Armies, strapped for cash and flush with cheap soldier labor, might have chosen to save a few buck on the hundreds of coffinc it made a day. Even then, most bodies were sent home in rectangular boxes, not tapered coffins, because they could be slapped together easily by unskilled labor, especialy after heavy battles. Naturally, these shoddy boxes gave boxes a bad name, and funeral directors pushed for ‘classier’ coffins when the family could afford them, even though the bodies came home in a pine box.

I would guess that the coffin shape you describe is mostly a fashion artifact of the Civil War and postwar era in the US (and other eras elsewhere). I have seen far more rectangular caskets in history, from the pre-Christian Middle East to the Roman Empire to the present-day US/Europe. In Asia, a variety of shapes were used, but the rectangular was quite common, probably the most common, for the simple ease of cinstruction

There is probably some psychological influence from (e.g.) the famous sarcophagi of the Pharoahs, etc. (Though the Egyptians used square caskets, and indeed the outer case of the Pharoah’s sarcophagi were rectangular, the public image is of the more tapered inner cases.

I find it hard to believe that the small savings in wood from using the coffin shape would justify the extra labor involved.

I’ll suggest that a more likely explanation is that the tighter-fitting coffin shape was intended to keep the legs from flopping around inside the box.

I have absolutely no evidence to back this conjecture up, however … .

Pochacco, I think you may have something there.

For those that are interested “kerf” is the gap that is left from a cut such as the appx. 1/8" kerf removed by a circular saw blade.

I happened to be watching Oliver! (the movie version of the musical) the other day; in the scene where oliver is locked in the undertaker’s cellar, you can see the kerfs on the inside shoulders of the coffins.