16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial

Trista - October 4, 2018

Burial is a ritual that has long carried intensely religious meanings. In fact, anthropologists have determined that Neanderthals had at least some form of religion because they buried their dead ceremoniously. Today, the decision of whether or not to cremate someone’s remains is a hard decision that, for many, is loaded with spiritual and religious connotations. Some families still struggle with whether or not to donate their loved one’s organs, not because they are opposed to saving the lives of people in need of transplants but because of what the religious significance would be. The way that a culture treats its dead says a lot about its customs, traditions, and its religions.

Historically, the ritual of burial has gone through a lot of iterations across a vast number of cultures. Many had elaborate ceremonies and rituals for the wealthy or warriors who died in battle. Those who were royal in life tended to be treated as royal in death, too. Meanwhile, ordinary people were often just put into the ground.

Current knowledge of things like the spread of disease have led to burial practices that today may be more hygienic than those of our ancestors, but are no less bizarre or practical. Read on to find out some of the rather strange things that people have been known to do (or still do) with human bodies.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Bodies were often buried under public buildings like the Enon Chapel Cemetery and Dancing Saloon. G.A. Walker/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

1. Churchgoers in England Unknowingly Danced on 12,000 Corpses

One of the most common woes to plague London throughout its long and dirty history is the question of what to do with dead bodies. During times of mass epidemics, like the Black Death, people often died quicker than they could be buried, leading to bodies piling up in the streets and even being dumped in the River Thames. The result tended to be — you guessed it — diseases filling the city and leading to even more mass epidemics.

A common practice in the nineteenth century was for bodies to be buried underneath public buildings, especially churches (mainly when the church graveyards filled up). This practice was the case at Enon Chapel in London, a poor, working-class church that was led by the Reverend Howse. He charged a measly 15 shillings to bury a body, as opposed to the going rate of £117, and stacked the corpses in a pit underneath the floorboards of the church. To save space, he took the coffins and hacked them up into firewood so that the bodies could be pressed more closely together. He figured that he could pack in even more bodies if he started tossing them down into the sewer below.

Eventually, the noxious fumes from the decomposing bodies began to seep into the church itself, and insects plagued the worshippers. People quickly became sick, yet the scheme continued for years. When Howse died, bodies were found under his own house. The church was turned into a bar and advertised that people could literally dance on the dead.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Bodies dumped in a mass grave. Internet Archive Book Images/flickr/No known copyright restrictions

2. People Were Buried Alive During the Black Plague

When the Black Plague tore through Europe in the Middle Ages, it killed off as much as 1/3 to 1/2 of the entire population. Nobody was immune, and pretty much everyone on the whole continent lost somebody to the plague. This massive depopulation had pretty severe consequences for people’s social standing in Europe. With the epidemic killing off an entire population of serfs, the people who might ordinarily be expected to dig graves for all of the bodies were all gone. There wasn’t just not enough ground to bury all of the people or enough time to give them all a proper Christian funeral. There weren’t enough people to dig the graves.

Enter the mass grave, a crude form of burial in which a pit is dug and bodies thrown in together. Mass graves dug during the Black Plague were known as “plague pits,” and no one was allowed near them for fear that the disease would spread. Without a proper funeral to begin to mourn the loss of loved ones, people would often fling themselves into the pits; they often were not pulled out for fear that they now had the disease. Others who were near death threw themselves into the pit voluntarily and would be buried alive.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Resuable coffins. gianfrancodebei/Pixabay/CC-0

3. Coffins Were Once Reused to Save Wood

By the second half of the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was leading to a population increase all throughout the Western world. With greater populations come higher demands on natural resources, and one resource that was stressed particularly bad was that of wood, particularly in Austria. The Holy Roman emperor (who was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an emperor), Joseph II and his wife, Maria Therese, promoted measures that they believed would reduce the use of wood. One was an efficiency stove, which used less wood than traditional ones. Another was that they imposed strict laws on cutting down trees in rural areas.

Probably the most bizarre idea that the royal couple came up with was, in 1784, that of reusable caskets. They were designed so that, at the end of the funeral and burial ceremony, the pallbearers or another officiant could flip a switch to open up the bottom. The body would fall out into the grave. The casket could then be reused for the next corpse. The trend lasted for only about six months until a public outcry led to the practice being stopped. The emperor would have to come up with less macabre ways of saving wood.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Exploding coffin. Scott May’s Daredevil Stunt Show/www.scottmaydaredevil.co.uk

4. Exploding Casket Syndrome Is a Real Thing

The process of decomposition isn’t pretty. Even with modern methods of embalming, the fact is that there are gases that build up inside of a person’s body that need somewhere to go. Coroners are very well of this process and make allowances for it when they are performing autopsies. Pretty soon, parts of the body begin to liquefy, especially the vital organs, like the heart, lungs, and kidneys. The result is that even more gas is produced and escapes. If the gas doesn’t have anywhere to go, because it’s trapped inside a casket six feet underground, the pressure will build and build and build until finally, things go kablooey.

To make way for the process of decomposition to carry itself out without getting any messier than necessary, some coffins are made with so-called “burper valves,” not unlike the valves on Tupperware containers that allow heat and gas to escape in the microwave. When the gas causes enough pressure to build up, the valves open up and let the gas to escape. Unfortunately, the most high-end coffins tend to focus more on form than on function andmay lack the necessary valves. Instead of opting for the priciest coffin, you may want to go for one that won’t explode.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Bleached skull. elianemey/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

5. Skeletons Are Exhumed and Ritually Cleaned in Taiwan and China

In the East, particularly China and Taiwan, veneration of the ancestors is an essential aspect of life for many people and is densely woven into the cultural fabric. There are holidays and festivals dedicated to showing respect to the ancestors, with beliefs that they need to continue eating and drinking, or that people who care for their ancestors are ensuring that their next lives will be better than this one.

One means of venerating ancestors is by exhuming decomposed bodies and ritually cleaning the skeletons. The process of decomposition takes about 12 years, depending on factors such as the soil and the coffin’s wood. After this time, families will either pay a professional to exhume, clean and rebury the skeleton or have a male member of the family do it himself. Women are not allowed to clean bones, as they would defile them.

The practice is known as jiangu, and it has many different elements, traditions, and taboos associated with it. For example, female relatives of the person being cleaned must hold open a black umbrella when the coffin is being opened. After that, the bones may be painted with red lines to represent veins before being wrapped in bamboo paper. Altogether, the ritual is believed to ensure a better life for both the deceased family member and for the one cleaning the bones.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Tower of Silence, Zoroastrian. Cornelius Brown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

6. Zoroastrians Preferred to Have Vultures Eat Their Corpses

Zoroastrians, followers of Iran’s ancient religion, have burial practices that might look quite bizarre to a Westerner. Rather than burying people under church floorboards, they placed corpses in so-called towers of silence to decompose away from the four elements: fire, water, earth, and air. Zoroastrian belief holds that these elements are sacred and should not ever be polluted; the disposal of a body in the ground through burial, in fire through cremation, or at sea in water would cause them to become polluted.

Instead, bodies were laid at the top of towers of silence so that scavengers could pick away at their insides and cause faster decomposition. These towers contained step-like features, similar to tiers, on the inside, upon which bodies were arranged in three rows: men on the outside, women in the middle, and children on the inside. Once the bodies were fully decomposed and only a skeleton remained, it was naturally bleached by the sun and thereby considered to be purified. Once purified, the bones could be laid to rest inside a well within the tower of silence, where they would naturally degrade into a white powder. Towers of silence are still used today among Zoroastrian populations, particularly in Iran and India.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Medical students examine a skeleton. German Federal Archives /Blindenstudienanstalt Marburg/Lahn

7. Some Indonesians Keep Dead Bodies in Their Homes For Weeks

In the highlands of the remote Indonesian island of Sulawesi, some inhabitants leave dead bodies in their homes for weeks and continue to act as if they are still alive and members of the household. Their bodies may be lying down in bed, sitting in a chair, or even standing upright. Family members bring them food and talk to them as if they are still present. During this time, the bodies are sprayed with a formaldehyde solution to prevent putrefaction; it also causes the skeletons to dehydrate and mummify. After a few weeks, the corpses are placed into coffins, but they may remain in the home for months until the funeral takes place. The Torajan people, who carry out this process, believe that the soul of the deceased remains in the house long after death.

In a ceremony known as ma’nene, the bodies are paraded through the streets in a type of second funeral. The masses may be dug up from the crypt or wherever they were buried before being ceremonially cleaned, dressed, and put on display by family members. While many Westerners might find the death and grieving process of the Torajan people unhealthy at best or even demented at worst, the people have established their own method for how they let go of the dearly departed and keep them a part of their lives. When the bodies are put on display, family members feel proud.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Eighteen-year-old murder victim Renard Matthews. WGNO https://www.thisisinsider.com/teenager-lifelike-extreme-embalming-2018-7

8. Some People Today Attend Their Own Funerals

Modern embalming practices have come a long way from the priests of ancient Egypt, who spent 70 days turning a dead body into a mummy. So far, in fact, that some families now opt for a process known as “extreme embalming.” Instead of putting their loved ones into coffins and having a somber service to send them off and begin the process of rebuilding their lives, the person’s body is displayed in death much as it would have been in life. The corpse may be positioned on a chair with his or her favorite things, like a PlayStation controller, a drum set, or a bag of cookies. By many accounts, the person seems to be present at his or her own funeral.

Families who opt for extreme embalming see it as a means of honoring the person’s life in a fun-loving fashion. In doing so, they can ensure that they remember the dead as they indeed were in life rather than as a lifeless body in a casket. However, because much of the religious tradition is stripped of the service, many people have a hard time accepting this unique means of sending a loved one off and are even offended by it.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Frankenstein’s creature had real-life inspiration. Photo: https://interestingliterature.com/2012/12/04/frankenstein-the-most-misread-novel

9. Frankenstein’s Inspiration Came From Real-Life Grave-Digging

Mary Shelley, the author of the quintessential Gothic ghost story, Frankenstein, grew up in an era in which the only legal means of acquiring bodies for medical research was from the gallows. As a deterrent to committing more sinister crimes, such as murder, criminals were not only hung but their bodies dismembered and sold to medical institutions, especially schools. The deterrent may have been somewhat effective, as there were never enough dead bodies to satisfy the needs of medical students. Enter the profession of grave digging, when real-life body snatchers were paid to dig up the freshly-buried bodies.

This ignoble profession served as the inspiration for how the monster in Frankenstein was created: the mad scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, becomes so obsessed in his quest to create the perfect human that he exhumes dead bodies and uses their parts to make his creature. In fact, Mary Shelley and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, often met up in London’s St. Pancras cemetery, a place that was well-known for grave digging. No doubt their courtship was filled with telling ghost stories to each other that were based on the happenings at the cemetery. There is speculation that the body of Mary’s mother, who died when she was young, was snatched and thereafter dismembered.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Le Suicidé. Édouard Manet/Public Domain

10. Medieval Suicide Victims Were Punished After Death

While previous cultures had been somewhat ambivalent towards suicide, when Christianity rose to prominence, the act of taking one’s life came to be seen as an abomination that would be eternally punished. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, this belief can be seen following Ophelia’s suicide. Even though she had gone mad before taking her own life, she was denied burial and had to be buried secretly by gravediggers.

Often, the person who took his or her own life would be ceremoniously excommunicated, or sent out of the church, posthumously. The belief was that such a practice would condemn the person to purgatory, if not to hell, for eternity. In England, the corpse might be dragged through the streets to ensure that the person experienced shame for the act of self-slaughter. In some places, there would actually be a trial to determine if the person had committed suicide, though the “trial” looked more like a circus with an already-determined outcome than a modern-day autopsy. If found guilty, the person would be subjected to both conventional and canonical law.

In some Christian areas, though, suicide was treated with a bit more leniency, particularly if the perpetrator was feeling intense desperation or was being tormented by demonic forces.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Voodoo priest costume. Matthew Barnes https://www.pinterest.com/pin/58757970113633370/

11. Voodoo Doctors Bring People Back From the Dead as Zombies

The Inferi of Harry Potter are beings who were once dead yet were brought back to life through the dark art of necromancy. Though they inhabit the bodies of the deceased, they are entirely under the control of the necromancer and therefore lack the will and personality of the body’s former inhabitant. The Inferi could be seen as J.K. Rowling’s take on zombies, dead people whose lives were restored by a Voodoo sorcerer known as a bokor.

Voodoo beliefs can often be traced back to African folk religions and superstitions; in this case, the word “zombie” probably originates from the Congolese word “nzambi,” which refers to a dead person’s spirit. Reported cases of zombism, particularly in Haiti, have been shown to be the result of poisoning combined with mental and physical torture. A bokor administers poison to an individual and then enters him or her as if he or she is dead. The bokor then revives the person, allegedly bringing him or her back to life, and beats and starves the individual into a state of complete submission. The person can now be said to have been brought back to life yet exists under the control of the “necromancer.”

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Bela Lugosi in Dracula.
Screenshot from “Internet Archive” of the movie Dracula (1931) – https://archive.org/details/Dracula1931-Trailer

12. Vampires Really Were Pierced With Wooden Stakes

Vampires, the terrifying undead creatures that Stephanie Meyer popularized with her Twilight series, have little to do with the pale beings who suck people’s blood in order to turn them into vampires. Beliefs about vampires have origins in the ancient Middle East and the Far East, but the creature that fascinates the modern imagination — the cultural legacy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula — tends to be the one that hails from Eastern Europe, especially the Balkans and Romania.

In these cultures, the vampire was largely seen as a particular type of corpse that, when unearthed, had not decomposed and had fresh blood on it. However, these cases of lack of decomposition can probably be attributed to certain medical conditions or the premature burial of someone who was still alive (perhaps in a coma). The fresh blood was likely the corpse’s own blood, which naturally flowed from the body’s orifices, the “shrieking” noises were from air escaping the glottis, and shiny fingernails were actually the nail undergrowth that exposed itself once the fingernails themselves fell off.

Nevertheless, the people would pierce the hearts of these corpses with wooden stakes to ensure that they remained in their final resting places. They wouldn’t be able to terrorize the villages by sucking people’s blood.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Mummy in a casket. Shutterstock / Wonderopolis

13. Ancient Egyptian Priests Pulled Corpses’ Brains Out Through Their Noses

The process of mummification in ancient Egypt was a gruesome, gory process that predates our modern embalming processes. The most important thing to understand about the mummification process is that it was deeply imbued with a religious significance; in fact, it was carried out by priests rather than doctors. As such, every step carried spiritual meaning.

The process began with the priests removing all of the corpse’s vital organs, usually starting with the mind. They would delicately insert a unique hooked instrument up the corpse’s nose and bring out the brain, bit by bit, careful to not disfigure the face. They would then cut the left side of the person’s body to remove all of the internal organs, excluding only the heart, believing it to be the center of intelligence and the seat of the soul. The liver, stomach, lungs, intestines, and all other organs were placed inside jars and sealed so that they would journey with the person to the afterlife.

Next, the priests would salt the body to remove as much moisture as possible before wrapping it in linen. This part of the process was quite tedious, as sometimes fingers and toes would be bound separately, and several hundred yards of linen strips were required. Their technique withstood the test of time: whether or not the bodies found their way to the afterlife, they have lived on in the stories of ancient Egypt and the mummies that today can be viewed at museums.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Day of the Dead costume. http://celebrationsoxford.co.uk/mexican-day-of-the-dead-sugar-skulls/763-day-of-the-dead-skull-rose-top-hat.html

14. Some People Celebrate Their Dead Instead of Mourning Them

Ancient tribes in Latin America, including the Aztecs and Toltecs, believed that the act of mourning those who had died was disrespectful; they were still present and should have their memories preserved. Enter Mexico’s Day of the Dead, celebrated on November 2 as a means of honoring, rather than mourning, those who have been lost. Altars are constructed in people’s homes, not for worship but for providing the dead spirits with things that they may need, such as food and water, as well as a candle and family photos. After all, the journey from the world of the dead to the world of the living can make you quite hungry and thirsty. Families that have lost children might also place toys on the altar.

Day of the Dead celebrations in Latin America are festive, social occasions. Parties are held in the streets and public squares all day long and well into the night. Symbols that many people might find macabre and disorienting, such as skulls, are used as molds to bake sweets and other treats for the celebrations. The effect is a different way of viewing death and grieving, and UNESCO feels that this is so momentous that it has made the Day of the Dead an official cultural heritage.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Funeral pyre. jarabi / Pixabay

15. Some Indian Widows Are Still Expected to Die From Grief

In an era of feminism and unparalleled pushes for equal rights for women, there is much concern over the ancient practice of sati. In many parts of India, bodies are cremated on a funeral pyre according to local Hindu traditions. Sati is the practice of the widow throwing herself onto the flames so that she, too, dies with her husband.

The practice originated around the 1300s when Rajput women would commit suicide on a funeral pyre after their husbands were killed in battle. The method had a practical purpose: the women would rather die than be enslaved by their enemies. Over time, it evolved into a test of the wife’s devotion; she was expected to throw herself onto the pyre and burn to death in order to prove that she had been a good wife.

Fortunately, the practice of sati has been outlawed in India, and women are not even allowed to throw themselves onto their husbands’ funeral pyres voluntarily. However, reported cases still happen and sometimes receive high-profile attention. In remote villages that are more bound to local traditions than the central authorities, though, the practice may be much more prominent than believed.

16 Grave Facts About the History of Coffins and Burial
Capsula Mundi. Giacomo Bretzel https://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/03/world/eco-solutions-capsula-mundi/index.html

16. Your Body Can Nourish a Tree

Death has long been tied to religious beliefs, and there can easily be an argument made that much of today’s religion is consumerism. However, many people are actively and passionately eschewing that lifestyle in favor of something more simplistic and natural. The creators of the Capsula Mundi certainly have as they believe that death is as much commercialized today as is life. The expenses of coffins, funerals, and everything else make the process of ending one’s life yet another aspect of a consumerist lifestyle.

They wanted to give people a different option, one that is as minimalist and natural as possible. Enter the Capsula Mundi, an egg-shaped coffin made of biodegradable plastic. The coffin is buried underneath a tree sapling. As it degrades underground, the nutrients from the deceased’s corpse nourish the seedling and take on new life in the form of the growing tree.

In addition to providing a means for minimalist people to be buried according to their own “religion,” the Capsula Mundi is much more environmentally friendly. Traditional coffins pollute the ground and are not helpful to the process of decomposition. The Capsula Mundi enables people to leave a smaller carbon footprint in death and even give back to the earth.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“It Is Forbidden To Wear Clogs: Saving Energy Under Maria Theresa and Joseph II,” by Christina Linsboth. The World of the Habsburgs.

“Enon Chapel: London’s Victoria Golgotha,” by Carla Valentine. Order of the Good Death. June 30, 2014.

“Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, Where The Dead Are Left to the Vultures,” by Wu Mingren. December 6, 2019.

“Rites of Desecration: Suicide, Sacrilege, and the Crossroads,” by Mark Laskey. CVLT Nation. September 8, 2014.

“Plague Pits.” Wikipedia. March 1, 2018.

“The Bone Collector,” by Yu Sen-lun. Taipei Times. November 21, 2004.

“When Death Doesn’t Mean Goodbye,” by Amanda Bennett. National Geographic. March 2016.

“Frankenstein: Graveyards, Scientific Experiments, and Bodysnatchers,” by Ruth Richardson. The British Library online collections. May 15, 2014.

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits by Rosemary Ellen Guiley 2007

“Egyptian Mummies.” Smithsonian Institute online collection.

“A teenager’s funeral featured an ‘extreme embalming’ – and it’s more common than you might think,” by Kaila Hale-Stern. Insider. July 10, 2018.

“Top 10 Things to Know About the Day of the Dead,” by Logan Ward. National Geographic.

“India wife dies on husband’s pyre.” BBC News. August 22, 2006.

“The biodegradable burial pod that turns your body into a tree,” by Paula Erizanu. CNN. January 11, 2018.