Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Barbara Carson

Committee Member

Bruce McConachie


This dissertation is a study of the American coffin, its origins, forms, and meanings especially with regard to its role in the integration of death in American society before 1870. Coffins have generally been ignored by material culture studies primarily because of our society's cultural uneasiness with the topic of death. Current American funeral and burial practices seem bizarre and ahistorical and have often been characterized as the result of twentieth-century commercial greed. However, coffins have a long history as important artifacts which American society has used to legitimize death in subtly different ways for generations. This study examines the first uses of coffins in seventeenth-century America and follows their development up to the consolidation of the field of funeral directing and the mass production of coffins in the years after the Civil War.;This dissertation will investigate the role of coffins as they developed through the interaction of three major cultural systems, Christianity, gentility, and modernity. Each had an influence on the form and meaning of coffins and on each other. The origins of coffins lie in the system of Christianity and its emphasis on the resurrection of the body. Although Christianity would continue to influence attitudes toward death, burial practices and coffin use underwent a process of secularization. This allowed other systems, primarily gentility, to incorporate coffins and burial.;Within the cultural system of gentility, coffins first served as an object of status for the gentry, but their role changed as the process of commercialization made decorated coffins more available to a greater number of Americans, and gentility was modified into respectability. Eventually the system of modernity incorporated coffin use, as mass marketing and production combined with technological innovations. This was exemplified by the introduction of the metallic burial case. By tracing the developments in coffins and burial and their role in cultural systems, we may better understand how American society was able to continually legitimize the institution of death and create a common understanding of experience.



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