Student Museum Musings: Death to Rest: The Story of the Coffin

By Lauren R., High School Co-op Student

When undertaking was first introduced it wasn’t a popular business; in fact furniture makers used undertaking as a side job. Undertaking wasn’t a popular enterprise because people believed that the deceased loved ones were being separated and taken away from the rest of the family; it was depersonalizing the death. For this reason most undertakers actually went to the house and prepared the body there- they would take the flowers, a coffin, stands for the coffin, and any accessories or back drops the family may want. All of the equipment that could be used again was collapsible and could be put into boxes and suit cases to be taken with the undertaker once the person had been buried.

Mourning After

Mourning After

The body would be held in the house for a few days before the burial at this time the family would come and say good bye to the deceased loved one. This period is known as a wake (in North America it is synonymous with a viewing- which now takes place at a funeral home) during this time family members would stay with the body and attempt to wake it up to return the loved ones to them. The body would lay in either a coffin or a casket; a coffin is in a hexagonal shape to mirror the human body, while a casket was in a rectangular shape, surrounded by flowers and family. These coffins would be rather plain wooden boxes; unless, the family purchased coffin jewelry, little metal ornaments which would adorn the coffin and make it unique. When the body was moved from the house to be buried the coffin would face so that the person was looking away from the house, this way they were always looking forward, do as not to disturb the spirit.

The body would then be carried, or taken by hearse to the cemetery. The coffin would sometimes be covered in a cloth known as a pall; this is where the name pallbearer comes from. After this the body would be laid to rest.

Mourning After: The Victorian Celebration of Death is on display now through to November! Be sure to visit and see this exhibition

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