The History of Caskets

October 2, 2009
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The casket industry traces its roots back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where wood, cloth and paper were used to make sarcophagus-style burial boxes. In the United States, casket manufacturing developed in the late 19th century. Today, it is a $1.2 billion industry and Batesville Casket Co. is the leading manufacturer.

The casket industry traces its roots back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where wood, cloth and paper were used to make sarcophagus-style burial boxes. In Europe, the Celts began making caskets out of flat stones around the year 700. However, for centuries, caskets were only used to bury aristocrats and nobility. Most bodies were simply wrapped in burial shrouds.

In the United States, the early casket industry evolved from local furniture and cabinet makers who doubled as undertakers. They built wood caskets on an as-needed basis. During the Civil War, thousands of coffins were needed to transport dead soldiers, marking the start of the mass-produced casket era.

Steel caskets first appeared in the late 1840s, when Dr. Almond Fisk received a U.S. patent for a cast-iron casket that he claimed was airtight and indestructible. The bronze-finished “metallic burial case” featured a lid made from a sheet of glass, which allowed mourners to view the deceased.

According to the Casket & Funeral Supply Association of America (CFSA), casket manufacturing developed as a distinct business in the late 19th century. However, most companies only operated in local and regional markets.

Batesville Casket Co. (www.batesville.com) was founded in 1884, when local craftsmen began producing hand-made wooden coffins in a small town in southeastern Indiana. John Hillenbrand, a lumber merchant and entrepreneur, purchased the company in 1906. 

Hillenbrand's four sons became involved in the business, including George Hillenbrand, who automated the factory to make it more productive. His numerous inventions made innovation a Batesville hallmark. Hillenbrand received more than 40 U.S. patents, including one for the first mass-produced metal-gasketed casket called the Monoseal.

In 1918, Batesville began making metal caskets. Just before World War II, the company developed a process that allowed it to mass-produce metal caskets more cost effectively than traditional wooden coffins.

During the 1940s, Batesville only made cloth-covered cardboard caskets to conserve metal and wood for the war effort. In 1948, the company started making metal caskets again. In fact, during the 1950s and 1960s, Batesville only produced metal caskets.

In 1973, three years after the 2009 Assembly Plant of the Year opened in Manchester, TN, Batesville began to make hardwood caskets again. Today, the company assembles wood caskets in Batesville, MS. Bronze, copper and stainless steel caskets are assembled in Batesville, IN. The Manchester plant mass-produces 18- and 20-gauge carbon steel caskets.

By the early 1950s, the CFSA says there were more than 700 casket manufacturers in the United States. However, after decades of consolidation, only147 companies were still active in 2003. Today, less than a dozen manufacturers assemble more than 90 percent of all metal caskets sold in the United States. The CFSA estimates that three companies (Batesville, Aurora Casket Co. and York Group) produce more than 70 percent of all caskets sold annually. Casket manufacturing in the United States is a $1.2 billion industry.

In 2004, Costco Wholesale Corp. caused an uproar in the industry when it started to sell steel caskets at low prices. Around the same time, some distributors began importing cheap caskets from China. To address the challenge, in 2005, Batesville created a brand of private-label products called NorthStar.

The National Museum of Funeral History (www.nmfh.org) in Houston features numerous exhibits on the history of caskets, including a turn-of-the-century casket factory and a display of fantasy coffins from Ghana, such as a car, a jet airliner and a fish.

Earlier this year, another facility, the Museum of Funeral Customs, closed in Springfield, IL. Among numerous displays, the museum featured replicas of the caskets used by Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

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