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The Story Behind A Legendary Term

Coffins, also known as a casket in North American English, is a funerary box used in the display and containment of deceased remains -- either for burial or after cremation. The word comes ultimately from Greek kophinos, a basket. In English, the word was not used in a funeral sense until the 1500s.

Any box used to bury the dead in are called coffins. Use of the word "casket" in this sense is a North American euphemism, introduced by the undertaker's trade; a "casket" properly so called is in fact a box for jewelry. Some Americans draw a distinction between "coffin" and "casket"; for these people, a coffin is a tapered hexagonal or octagonal box used for a burial. A rectangular burial box is called a "casket".

A casket is technically a coffin that is made of modern materialsCoffins may be buried in the ground directly, placed in a burial vault or cremated. Some countries practice one form almost exclusively; in others it merely 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, and organizing the inside of the coffin with drapery of some kind is known as "trimming the coffin".

Today manufacturers offer features that they claim will protect the body. For example, some may offer a protective coffin 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 liquefaction 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.

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 normally used. Those who wish to have a funeral visitation (sometimes called a viewing) or a traditional funeral service will use a coffin of some sort.

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