There are a few words in our language that some people interchange without necessarily realising that they refer to subtly different things. One particular question we are frequently asked is about the difference between a casket and a coffin. What seems like a straightforward question actually has quite a complex answer, with roots stretching back hundreds of years. It’s become further complicated by the merging together of American and English language over generations, as well as localised preferences.
But aren’t they both the same thing?
It really depends on whether you want to get into the minutiae of designs, shapes and sizes. On the one hand both a coffin and a casket refer to the form of a ‘container’ used to move a deceased person’s body. In America the term typically used is casket and in the UK we tend to still refer to coffins. But this is not just colloquialisms; it’s actually down to the shape of each. A casket is rectangular with four sides, long side bar handles and a hinged lid; whilst a coffin has six-sides, a traditional tapered shape at the feet, a wider section to accommodate the shoulders, smaller handles along the side and a fully removable lid.
The reason each country uses different names is mainly because they prefer different shapes – therefore the terminology used is accurate. Americans tend to favour the rectangular casket style while us Brits still choose the hexagonal coffin. In more recent times the angular nature of the coffin has been rounded and smoothed, especially in teardrop coffins made using natural materials (willow and bamboo) but we still refer to them as coffins.
What about ashes caskets?
Just to add further confusion, the term casket can also refer to an ashes container, which is probably where some of the confusion comes from in the UK. We see coffins as being used for holding the body and caskets for holding the cremated remains of our loved one. And that reference to our loved one is relevant here because the etymology of casket is a receptacle for holding precious or valued objects – which we think is a fitting description for its purpose.
Both words have French origin (back to cassette or case) and today you may still even hear someone referring to ‘the coffers’ in financial terms when collecting money. This term, similar to coffin, relates to a strong box or case and somewhere one may have held valuables.
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