“Caskets! A vile modern phrase, which compels a person of sense and good taste to shrink more disgustfully than ever before from the idea of being buried at all.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne, Our Old Home
Though casket and coffin—the two terms for burial boxes—are used interchangeably by the American public at large, funeral industry insiders know that there is a difference between the two, and (to paraphrase Neil LaBute) it’s all in the shape of the things.
The word coffin evolved from the Old French word cofin, which originally meant “basket” but was later used to describe a sarcophagus. In North America today, a coffin refers specifically to a hexagonal funerary box that is somewhat tapered to fit the human body: wider at shoulder level and narrower down by the feet.
The word casket, on the other hand, was originally coined to describe an ornamental box used to hold jewelry or other precious items. By the mid-19th century in the U.S., however, the person who was once the local undertaker (who quietly buried the deceased without much fanfare) was now a funeral director, and as embalming technology progressed, so too did the business side of mourning. Every possible measure was taken to consider the sensibilities of the grieving family members and assuage their pain as much as possible. Thus, the traditional form-fitting coffin was deemed too morose for viewing purposes and was replaced by the four-sided, hinged-lidded, box-shaped burial vessel that we refer to as a casket.
The word casket didn’t have the negative connotation that was associated with coffin, or so went the thinking at the time. And once closed, the rectangular shape was found to be more comforting to mourners than a container shaped like a human body. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for this new sense of casket shows the changing viewpoint: “The casket, which held this jewel, was worthy of it.” The jewel being a loved one.
Additional source: The American Way of Death Revisited, by Jessica Milford