Any box used to bury the dead in is a coffin. Use of the word "casket" in this sense began as a euphemism introduced by the undertaker's trade in North America; a "casket" was originally a box for jewelry. Some Americans draw a distinction between "coffins" and "caskets"; for these people, a coffin is a tapered hexagonal or octagonal (also considered to be anthropoidal in shape) box used for a burial. A rectangular burial box with a split lid used for viewing the deceased is called a "casket" as seen in the picture above.
Some countries practice one form almost exclusively; in others, it depends on the individual cemetery. The handles and other ornaments (such as doves, stipple crosses, crucifix, masonic symbols etc.) that go on the outside of a coffin are called fittings (sometimes called 'coffin furniture', not to be confused with furniture that is coffin shaped) while organising the inside of the coffin with drapery of some kind is known as "trimming the coffin".
Cultures that practice burial have widely different styles of coffin. In some varieties of orthodox Judaism, the coffin must be plain, made of wood, and contain no metal parts nor adornments. These coffins use wooden pegs instead of nails. In China and Japan, coffins made from the scented, decay-resistant wood of cypress, sugi, thuja and incense-cedar are in high demand. In Africa, elaborate coffins are built in the shapes of various mundane objects, like automobiles or aeroplanes.
Sometimes coffins are constructed to display the dead body, as in the case of the glass-covered coffin of Haraldskær Woman on display in the Church of Saint Nicolai in Vejle, Denmark or the glass-coffin of Vladimir Lenin which is in the Red Square in Moscow..
Today manufacturers offer features that they claim will protect the body. For example, some may offer a protective casket that uses a gasket to seal the casket shut after the coffin is closed for the final time. Many manufacturers offer a warranty on the structural integrity of the coffin. However, no coffin will preserve the body, regardless of whether it is a wooden or metal coffin, a sealed casket, or if the deceased was embalmed beforehand. In some cases, a sealed coffin may actually speed up rather than slow down the process of decomposition. An airtight coffin, for example, fosters decomposition by anaerobic bacteria, which results in a putrefied liquification of the body, and all putrefied tissue remains inside the container, only to be exposed in the event of an exhumation. A container that allows air molecules to pass in and out, such as a simple wooden box, allows for aerobic decomposition that results in much less noxious odor and clean skeletonization.
Coffins are made of many materials, including steel, various types of wood, and other materials such as fiberglass. There is now emerging interest in eco-friendly coffins made of purely natural materials such as bamboo or Banana Leaf.
Coffins are sometimes personalized to offer college insignia or different head panels to better reflect the deceased's life choices.
With the resurgence of cremation in the Western world, manufacturers have begun providing options for those who choose cremation. For a direct cremation a cardboard box is sometimes used. Those who wish to have a funeral visitation (sometimes called a viewing) or traditional funeral service will use a coffin of some sort.
Some choose to use a coffin made of wood or other materials like particle board. Others will rent a regular casket for the duration of the services. These caskets have a removable bed and liner which is replaced after each use. There are also rental caskets with an outer shell that looks like a traditional coffin and a cardboard box that fits inside the shell. At the end of the services the inner box is removed and the deceased is cremated inside this box.
In the United States, a number of companies like the Batesville Casket company, produce numbers of coffins. Some manufacturers do not sell directly to the public, and only work with licensed funeral homes. In that case, the funeral home usually sells the casket to a family for a deceased person as part of the funeral services offered, and in that case the price of the casket is included in the total bill for services rendered, which is often not completely itemized.
Often funeral homes will have a small showroom to present families with the available caskets that could be used for a deceased family member. In many modern funeral homes the showroom will consist of sample pieces that show the end pieces of each type of coffin that can be used. They also include samples of the lining and other materials. This allows funeral homes to showcase a larger number of coffin styles without the need for a larger showroom.
Under a U.S. federal law, 16 CFR Part 453 (known as the Funeral Rule), if a family provides a casket they purchased elsewhere, the establishment is required to accept the casket and use it in the services. If the casket is delivered direct to the funeral home from the manufacturer or store, they are required to accept delivery of the casket. The funeral home may not add any extra charges or fees to the overall bill if a family decides to purchase a casket elsewhere.
Custom coffins are occasionally created and some companies also make set ranges with non-traditional designs.These include painting of peaceful tropical scenes, sea-shells, sunsets and cherubs. Some manufacturers have designed them to look like gym carry bags, guitar cases, cigar humidors, and even yellow dumpster bins. Other coffins are left deliberately blank so that friends and family can inscribe final wishes and thoughts upon them to the deceased. The rock band Kiss has made a coffin called the Kiss Kasket for their most diehard fans; Dimebag Darrell, guitarist of both Pantera and Damageplan, was buried in one.
In Medieval Japan, round coffins were used,which resembled barrels in shape and were usually made by coopers. In the 1961 Kurosawa film Yojimbo, the protagonist, anticipating a shortage of coffins due to an impending battle (planned by Yojimbo) persuades several coopers to start making more coffins.
The Farminigton Hills, MI, company Eternal Images is licenced by Major League Baseball to create caskets and urns with MLB team logos. They also provide themed items from Star Trek and Precious Moments.
Before 1995 some prisons still used cardboard coffins to bury inmates who died while incarcerated. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1995 inmates asked to start building coffins for their dead. They also built a horse drawn carriage to pull the coffin to the cemetery.