Is there a difference between the two?

As it turns out, yes.

Clifford A. Pickover, author of Death and the Afterlife: A Chronological Journey from Cremation to Quantum Resurrection, explains that there is a difference, if subtle at most: “The word coffin often is used broadly to include any boxlike funerary enclosure to hold the dead; however, at least in North America, the term usually denotes a box with six sides (plus a top and bottom), whereas a casket is rectangular with four sides” (9).

Pickover says that it was often the village carpenter who created coffins for his community. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, furniture makers would often moonlight as undertakers and had the double duty of creating coffins and caring for the dead. My great great grandfather did this in Pennsylvania – his store Holcombe Furniture also served as the town’s undertaking residence, where he and his family made the caskets and readied the dead for burial.

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Holcombe Furniture and Undertaking, to the left just above the horse carriage, in Dushore, PA. Photo via V.B. Holcombe and Sons.

Before the nineteenth century, coffins and caskets were not a regular requirement for burial – simply a shroud (a death garment) would do. Today, this tradition is being revived in the form of green burials, which eschew practices such as embalming and anything that might inhibit the body from decomposing in the most natural way possible. Bodies are often buried in a shroud decorated with flowers and other greenery, and are placed directly into the ground. Sometimes they are also placed into a biodegradable coffin.

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An example of a nineteenth century safety coffin. Photo via Vox. 

What you don’t see today, however, are waiting mortuaries, or where bodies were placed to “wait” before burial in case they happened to actually be alive, as well as what Pickover calls “safety coffins,” which were popular in the 1800s and used to help assuage fears about premature burial: “A safety coffin patented in 1897 involved a ball placed on the corpse’s chest. A slight movement would release a spring that caused a flag to be raised above the ground. However, this device was impractical and was sensitive to small movements arising from corpse decomposition” (9).

Sources:

Pickover, Clifford A. Death and the Afterlife: A Chronological Journey from Cremation to Quantum Resurrection. New York: Sterling, n.d. Print.

Featured image via https://dontknowdickens.wordpress.com/research-project-1/.

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