Humans have been burying their dead in wooden coffins since 5000 BC in China, and coffins can range from simple wooden boxes to elaborate caskets such as we saw in Egyptian times. Coffins have been found all over the world, and throughout human history. But why do we use coffins at all?
The truth is, coffins are so widespread because they serve so many practical and emotional purposes. We use them in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons.
Here are some of the most common reasons that people have used coffins throughout history, and why we continue to use them today.
To Protect the Body From Predators
In early societies, it may have been necessary to protect the body from scavengers and predators which would have been attracted to it. A sealed casket would have deterred birds and animals from disturbing the body before it could be buried.
To Display the Body
Many coffins are used to display the body, either before burial or without burial at all. Viewing the body can be an act of closure and way to express grief, or a way to express respect and honor the person who has passed. Today, a person can be placed in an acrylic casket, often used in military funerals, in order to see the person. Many famous people are also placed in coffins for display, including leaders like Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, Chairman Mao Zedong, Hugo Chavez, and Kim Jong Il. It is also common to display the bodies of saints and holy figures, preserved for religious reasons.
To Protect Public Health
If a person died as a result of a communicable illness, people use coffins to reduce the chance of contracting the illness. A coffin can prevent viruses, germs, and bacteria from infecting the living as they perform their funeral rites, and from seeping into the surrounding soil and ground water.
To Preserve the Body
Many people want to preserve the bodies of important figures or loved ones from decay. A coffin can provide a protective environment that helps to protect and preserve the body, preventing moisture and bacteria from the soil from reaching the body and accelerating its decomposition.
To Honor the Dead
Many people prefer to think of their loved ones or important historical figures as resting, as in sleep. It's a more comfortable vision of their final resting place and helps ease the pain of passing. A coffin, lined with fabric and with a pillow, helps to create an impression of comfort and rest, as if the person were in a small bed, and seems more comforting and respectful than simply placing them in the earth with no protection.
To Contain the Scent of Decay
Decaying bodies begin to create an unpleasant scent over time. A coffin can help to contain that smell and reduce the unpleasant sensations associated with death and decay.
To Deter Grave Robbers
It has often been a tradition to bury the dead with items that were precious or important to them in life. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, this practice has led to people digging up graves to remove precious items or artifacts that may have been laid to rest with the body. Many cultures adopted coffins with features designed to deter or prevent grave robbing, so that their dead could rest undisturbed, along with the things they loved most in life.
To Create a Sense of Closure
Around the world, funeral rites develop to help the living cope with their grief and sense of loss. It is also common to feel confused and overwhelmed when facing the loss of a loved one. During these times, it can be deeply comforting to engage in ritual or ceremonial acts, which help the living feel that they are honoring their loved one and caring for them in death the way they cared for them in life.
Established funeral practices also help guide actions and decisions, so that people avoid confusion and feel that they are taking the correct and appropriate action. So, in a certain sense, we use coffins because it is customary, and because engaging in familiar acts and practices is comforting. The living need a sense of closure and comfort, and coffins help to provide those things.
Coffins are an important part of death and funeral rites, because they allow the body to rest comfortably, protected from disturbances, and allow the living to feel that they have cared for and respected their loved one.