Any box used to bury the dead in is a coffin. Use of the word "casket" in this sense began as a euphemism introduced by the undertaker's trade in North America; a "casket" was originally a box for jewelry. Some Americans draw a distinction between "coffins" and "caskets"; for these people, a coffin is a tapered hexagonal or octagonal (also considered to be anthropoidal in shape) box used for a burial. A rectangular burial box with a split lid used for viewing the deceased is called a "casket" as seen in the picture above.
A coffin may be buried in the ground directly, placed in a burial vault or cremated. The above ground burial is in a mausoleum. Often it is a large cement building at a cemetery, housing hundreds of bodies, or a small personal crypt.
Some countries practice one form almost exclusively; in others, it depends on the individual cemetery. The handles and other ornaments (such as doves, stipple crosses, crucifix, masonic symbols etc.) that go on the outside of a coffin are called fittings (sometimes called 'coffin furniture', not to be confused with furniture that is coffin shaped) while organising the inside of the coffin with drapery of some kind is known as "trimming the coffin".
Cultures that practice burial have widely different styles of coffin. In some varieties of orthodox Judaism, the coffin must be plain, made of wood, and contain no metal parts nor adornments. These coffins use wooden pegs instead of nails. In China and Japan, coffins made from the scented, decay-resistant wood of cypress, sugi, thuja and incense-cedar are in high demand. In Africa, elaborate coffins are built in the shapes of various mundane objects, like automobiles or aeroplanes.
Sometimes coffins are constructed to display the dead body, as in the case of the glass-covered coffin of Haraldskær Woman on display in the Church of Saint Nicolai in Vejle, Denmark or the glass-coffin of Vladimir Lenin which is in the Red Square in Moscow..
Today manufacturers offer features that they claim will protect the body. For example, some may offer a protective casket that uses a gasket to seal the casket shut after the coffin is closed for the final time. Many manufacturers offer a warranty on the structural integrity of the coffin. However, no coffin will preserve the body, regardless of whether it is a wooden or metal coffin, a sealed casket, or if the deceased was embalmed beforehand. In some cases, a sealed coffin may actually speed up rather than slow down the process of decomposition. An airtight coffin, for example, fosters decomposition by anaerobic bacteria, which results in a putrefied liquification of the body, and all putrefied tissue remains inside the container, only to be exposed in the event of an exhumation. A container that allows air molecules to pass in and out, such as a simple wooden box, allows for aerobic decomposition that results in much less noxious odor and clean skeletonization.
Coffins are made of many materials, including steel, various types of wood, and other materials such as fiberglass. There is now emerging interest in eco-friendly coffins made of purely natural materials such as bamboo or Banana Leaf.
Coffins are sometimes personalized to offer college insignia or different head panels to better reflect the deceased's life choices.
Some choose to use a coffin made of wood or other materials like particle board. Others will rent a regular casket for the duration of the services. These caskets have a removable bed and liner which is replaced after each use. There are also rental caskets with an outer shell that looks like a traditional coffin and a cardboard box that fits inside the shell. At the end of the services the inner box is removed and the deceased is cremated inside this box.
Often funeral homes will have a small showroom to present families with the available caskets that could be used for a deceased family member. In many modern funeral homes the showroom will consist of sample pieces that show the end pieces of each type of coffin that can be used. They also include samples of the lining and other materials. This allows funeral homes to showcase a larger number of coffin styles without the need for a larger showroom.
Under a U.S. federal law, 16 CFR Part 453 (known as the Funeral Rule), if a family provides a casket they purchased elsewhere, the establishment is required to accept the casket and use it in the services. If the casket is delivered direct to the funeral home from the manufacturer or store, they are required to accept delivery of the casket. The funeral home may not add any extra charges or fees to the overall bill if a family decides to purchase a casket elsewhere.
In Medieval Japan, round coffins,which resembled barrels in shape and were usually made by coopers. In the 1961 Kurosawa film Yojimbo, the protagonist, anticipating a shortage of coffins due to an impending battle (planned by Yojimbo) persuades several coopers to start making more coffins