Sunday, June 13, 2010

Coffin or casket? Does it matter?

Coffin or casket? Is there a difference?  And if there is, does it matter? Until recently, I used these words interchangeably. But I learned by talking to Loren Horton, an expert on Victorian and early 20th Century funeral customs, that they're not the same thing.

A coffin was simpler in construction - a wooden box, unlined, with a one-piece lid that was removed for the viewing.  A casket was more elaborate (and expensive), with lining that could have been pleated taffeta or satin. The lid was hinged and in two pieces, so the portion covering the upper body of the deceased could be opened for the viewing while the lower body remained cover.

Because of it's greater expense, a casket was intended to communicate that it was holding something more precious. A poorer family may only be able to afford a coffin. A family might choose a casket because they could afford it or because they wanted neighbors to think they could.

Other than interesting funeral detail, why does it matter?  As I delve into writing historical fiction, I know that the details make the difference. History buffs can tell if a writer had done the necessary research. And the choice of the right detail can set a scene in time and place like nothing else.

The Living History Farm staged a Victorian Funeral this past weekend. Arriving early, I had the opportunity to question the 'widow' - a collector of funeral ephemera, herself - at length, learning about superstitions, clothing and mourning customs,  and a host of other details. For instance, mirrors were covered because if you saw your reflection in the house in which someone died, you would die within a year. The widow wore black and was in mourning for two and a half years. Flowers were brought in to cover the smell - a particular issue in warm weather. The casket was always carried so the feet of the deceased went first - so the deceased could always see where he was going. And oh, so much more.

For me, the research is fun. I enjoy reading historical fiction because I'm always learning something. I find I enjoy writing historical fiction for that same reason.

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