A Brief History of Caskets

Sky Blue 18ga Steel Casket with Brass Trim
A contemporary burial, known as a traditional burial in today's funeral service industry, has an average price tag of more than $6,000.  This includes funeral services, casket, cemetery plot, grave liner, and a monument.    The largest single line item in the cost of a funeral is the casket--the average price paid for a casket in 2010 was $2300.  Just 50 years ago, the average price paid for a casket in the United States was less than $700.  A typical casket used in a funeral today is a painted steel casket with brass hardware and trim and retails for $3400.  In 1900 a typical casket was cloth-covered wood or plain wood and may cost around $16 --about  $400 in today's dollars adjusted for inflation.  Let's briefly explore the history of caskets in the United States.

The casket industry originated in the 1800s when local funeral directors, then known as undertakers or morticians, often operated a local furniture store and built caskets as needed for the families they serviced.  A simple pine coffin in 1840 cost between $2 and $3 (between $40 and $60 in today's currency adjusted for inflation).

While the first metal casket appeared in the United States in 1848, it wasn't until 100 years later in post-war America when the casket manufacturing industry started to change and the market shifted from wood to steel.  In 1848 the US patent office awarded A.D. Fisk a patent for a cast iron casket that was shaped like a sarcophagus and weighed 300 lbs!  Fisk created a rectangular, smooth sided casket in the 1850s that resembles the metal caskets with which we are more familiar today.  Catalogs from the 1850s tell us these early metal  caskets cost upwards from $40 to $170 as compared to the $2 to $3 cost for a pine casket.  Due to the high cost compared to wood, steel would wait almost a century before gaining a significant foothold in the casket market.

During the 1860s, some casket makers began mass producing caskets to meet the demands of the Civil War.  In the late 1800s casket making started to develop as a separate industry with manufacturers of caskets devoting their efforts solely to the manufacture and sale of caskets and coffins.

Caskets didn't change much during the early part of the 20th century with cloth-covered wooden caskets comprising the largest sector of the casket market.  In 1918 Batesville Casket Company (one of today's largest manufacturers) pioneered mass-production techniques with steel caskets that enabled the manufacturer to produce steel caskets cheaper than wooden coffins.  The number of independent casket manufacturers in the United States swelled with the industrial revolution but these manufacturers were local and regional working with local materials.  The use of caskets became standard practice for the transport of fallen soldiers in the wars between the Civil War and WWII.

In the 1940s Batesville and other casket manufacturers refrained from using steel or wood and instead manufactured cloth-covered cardboard caskets in order to conserve steel and wood for the war effort.  By 1948, with the war behind us and the start of the "booming" economy Batesville switched to manufacturing steel caskets exclusively through the 1960s.  This is the beginning of a major shift in the casket market from wood to steel caskets.
A casket lid fabricated using steel stamping techniques.

In the early 1950s, there were more than 700 casket makers in the United States and 75% of caskets were made of wood.   Most caskets were sourced from local materials and more than 20,000 workers were employed in the US casket manufacturing industry.  As assembly line methods perfected by the auto industry rapidly changed the way caskets were manufactured and distributed in America, the share of caskets made from steel grew to more than 60%.  The casket industry also continued to consolidate with about 500 casket manufacturers in existence by the late 1960s.

During the 1970s and 1980s the casket industry experienced mass consolidation through corporate acquisitions.  By 1996 only a dozen manufacturers in the United States supplied more than 90% of the market for steel caskets; and steel caskets continue to make up more than 60% of all caskets sold in the United States.  By 2003 it was estimated that just three companies (Batesville, Aurora, and York Group) produced more than 70% of all caskets sold in the United States.

The "traditional" burial with a steel casket is a tradition that is less 50 years old as is paying upwards of $2500 for a burial casket.  What the funeral industry today has branded a "natural" burial also known as the more trendy "green" burial is actually much more like the "traditional" burial dating back to the mid-1800s and earlier.  Chances are that your ancestors from the 1800s and earlier were buried in simple wooden casket constructed from local materials at an affordable price and buried in a simple cemetery plot without a concrete grave liner.  Call it "natural" or call it "green" but recognize that this growing trend is a matter of returning to the simpler "traditions" dating back as recently as the early 20th century.