from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Wooden coffin in the mourning hall
Abbot's sarcophagus, made of marble

A coffin ( etymology : shortening of the Greek sarkophagos [meat eater], see: sarcophagus ) is a container for the transport, laying out and burial of a corpse. As a rule, the coffin is used for burial in the ground or for cremation in the crematorium .


The shape of a burial container has been known in the Middle East for at least 9,000 years and is later documented from all over the world. The ancient Egyptians buried their dead in basket-like structures made of woven branches (Greek: kophinos = basket, is contained in the English word for coffin coffin ). A stone age burial type is the stone box .

At times, the coffin was only used as a means of transport at the funerals of poor people. Only well-to-do people were buried in their sometimes valuable coffins. Others were taken out of the morgue and placed in the earth, wrapped in a sheet. In some religious orders , such as the Carthusians , the custom has been preserved to bury the dead in the ground without a coffin, lying on a board.

Coffin materials

Coffins are and were made of different materials, traditionally from boards. Coffins made from a whole tree trunk ( tree coffin ) are also known from the Bronze Age . There are also stone coffins ( sarcophagus , Greek) and stone boxes , which were mainly used in the late Stone Age and early Bronze Age. But ceramics , copper , lead , sheet steel, cardboard or other materials are also used to build coffins. Plastic or zinc coffins are often used to transfer the dead to forensic medicine institutes . In the Middle East , burials in large jars were common. For the international transfer of corpses and when carrying out reburial operations , metal containers are required that must be fixed in a wooden coffin so that they cannot slip.

Wooden coffin

In Germany, due to environmental protection regulations, only wood is allowed as a material for coffins for burial . This regulation is supplemented in many cemetery regulations by the requirement for wood-like and easily rotable material. Until the 19th century, wooden coffins, including those that were timbered, were often referred to as "dead trees".

For religious reasons, burials in metal coffins or in a bare shroud may be desired; in Germany this is only permitted with official approval. The transport takes place in a closed coffin, but sometimes the burial can take place in an open coffin as a substitute. A wooden coffin is required for cremation . Exceptions for coffins made of cardboard or other combustible materials may be possible in individual crematoria.

Zinc coffin

Special conditions are placed on the coffin for the transport of a deceased person's corpse across the state border. It can be transported by land, rail, air or water. The transport papers are called the corpse passport . The body must lie in a hermetically sealed container, generally a "zinc coffin". The pressure equalization from the morgue to the environment takes place via a valve. Escaping gas is filtered for odor. For the liquid created in the coffin space, it is filled with absorbent material (sawdust, wood shavings, peat). A soldered zinc container is usually (for design reasons) surrounded by a wooden coffin. The walls of the wooden coffin must be at least 20 millimeters thick. If the wooden coffin is provided with soldered zinc plates or another dissolving material on the outside, a wood thickness of 30 millimeters is required. The number and spacing of the screw connections are prescribed. The entire transport container is transported in a neutral box, so that the coffin cannot be seen inside. This means that it can be transported on normal routes in aircraft, for example. The container for transport is the (inner) metal coffin, usually the dead person is reburied for burial. Zinc has bactericidal properties; in connection with the closure of the air inlet, this prevents decomposition too quickly . The coffin is always transported in the luggage compartment of the means of transport, so the bereaved cannot be present on the transport.

Metal coffin for crypt burial

A metal coffin is required for burial in a family crypt . For example, wooden coffins are purchased for a total of 15,000 burials in Vienna, but 250 metal coffins (1.6%) are made in the logistics center in Simmering every year. Simple models from 2000 euros are bent from zinc sheet, soldered and spray-painted, which serves to ensure a uniform appearance and protection against corrosion. The most expensive model is the "cardinal coffin" made of polished copper, which also contains a zinc coffin inside. The corpse is soldered airtight into the zinc coffin, as an odor seal is necessary if the burial takes place in the (accessible) crypt of a church. As a result, the contents of the coffin do not dry up as long as the coffin remains tight. However, overhead porosity of the coffin skin can lead to relevant exchange of gases (including water vapor) with the usual fluctuations in air pressure.

Medical coffin

Medical coffins are used to collect injured dead people, as is necessary after accidents. There are, for example, medical coffins made of blue powder-coated, deep-drawn aluminum. These are then cleaned in a tubular, closed washing system - each shell individually - and can be reused.

The lower and upper parts are usually conical and can be stacked alternately in one another to save space. In use, the slightly smaller upper part with its slightly smaller contour fits on a frame in the lower part and closes it according to the lid-on-pot principle. The upper part is inserted under two fixed locks at the head end and then closed with a buckle on the foot part.


The equipment and type of the coffin is determined by the person entitled to care for the dead . The coffin is lined with a layer of biodegradable "bituminous crepe", which is double crepe paper with a sealing bitumen layer, so that the body fluid leaking from the corpse is absorbed. Cheaper linings are made with a (non-absorbent) foil . This impermeable lining has the disadvantage that liquids remain in the coffin. A layer of absorbent filling material also dampens the discharge. For this purpose, mattresses with hollow fibers , litter of sawdust or shredded paper from the shredder are used. Such mattresses are covered with a coffin covering made of matt cotton or shiny viscose with elastic threads. A decorative tape, in the technical language "solder tape", is applied for decorative reasons. When saying goodbye to the open coffin, the body is usually supported by supports and cushions.


There is no special coffin for cremations , but because of the technology in the crematorium, a minimum calorific value is desired. Any coffin that complies with VDI guideline 3891 (emission reduction in human cremation facilities) may be cremated. This includes, among other things, the nature of the wood, the calorific value, the components of the paintwork and the equipment of the coffin. It is important that most crematoria only accept coffins with a solid wood seal. Cremation or cremation coffins are those coffins that were expressly made for the purpose of cremation. They are often of a simpler wood quality and less stable workmanship because they only have to be used to transport the corpse and the wrapping during cremation and are not exposed to earth pressure and weather.

Coffin shapes

House roof shape

With the common roof shape, the upper part is higher than the lower part. The sides of the lower part of the coffin do not run vertically, but at an obtuse angle downwards. In addition, this coffin shape can have a conical shape, that is, the coffin is wider at the head end than at the foot end.

Chest coffin

In the case of a chest coffin, in contrast to the house roof shape, the lower part is higher than the upper part. In addition, the side parts of the lower part run vertically. Chest coffins usually have a double cover sheet on the top. There is also a modification, the domed chest coffin. It has the same properties as the chest, with the difference that the top is rounded.

American chest coffin

Due to the fact that in the United States it is the rule to say goodbye to the open coffin, this coffin (in addition to the properties of a chest coffin) has a two-piece top, one of which can be folded back on a hinge so that the upper body of the deceased can be seen . In addition, the deceased can often be lifted by a crank mechanism during laying out so that the relatives can see him better.

Body shape coffin

The body shape coffin can be recognized by the fact that it is narrower at the head end than in the shoulder area. From the shoulder area onwards, the coffin becomes narrower again, so that it is as wide at the foot as it is at the head; the base of the coffin is hexagonal and the coffin top is flat. This form of the coffin is also known as the Italian coffin.

Bones box

The bones box is a wooden box that can also be considerably smaller than a coffin. It is used to bury the bones again after a reburial or other transport. Depending on local conditions, the bones are not necessarily decomposed after the statutory rest periods have expired. In the event that an expired grave site is re-occupied, the undecomposed bones are usually brought down, i.e. under the subsequent burial. Sometimes the previously deceased is buried again in a bones box. In particular, when the bones of the victims of the world wars were moved to central military cemeteries, bones boxes were used for this burial.

Folding coffin

Reusable coffin

In the late Middle Ages and early modern times, most parishes had one or more reusable coffins that they made available to bereaved relatives who could not afford a coffin. From the 16th century, such community coffins usually had a hinged bottom. The coffin with the body was lowered into the open grave. The corpse, wrapped in a burlap sack, fell through the opened bottom flap into the pit and was covered with earth and unslaked lime .

The same principle followed the " Josephinische Gemeindesargesarg " (popularly also called "Sparse Coffin"), which was introduced in 1785 throughout the territory of Habsburg Austria. However, this innovation met with massive resistance from the local population and was withdrawn after six months (see Josephine reforms ). In National Socialist Germany, folding coffins were reintroduced into prisons and psychiatric clinics.

Regional special forms in Ghana and Mexico

Paa Joe with sandal coffin 2006

In Ghana special figurative coffins are used by the Ga in the south of Ghana . There, the families of the deceased decide in which symbol their deceased will be buried. In rare cases it also happens that the deceased himself determines what his coffin should look like during his lifetime. Coffins associated with the deceased's profession are popular. For example, a fisherman is buried in a coffin shaped like a fish, or a tomato farmer in a tomato. The figural coffins of the Ga , used by all Ga today, evolved from the figural sedan chairs that were once used only by the traditional chiefs of the Ga. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, these could be carried in figural sedan chairs, the symbolism of which was linked to the totem of the chiefs. Since the exhibition Les Magiciens de la terre at the Center Pompidou in Paris in 1989, the figurative coffins of the Ga have not only been used for funerals in Ghana, but are also regularly exhibited in art museums in the West. Some coffin artists, especially Kane Kwei , Ataa Oko , Paa Joe , Kudjoe Affutu and Daniel Mensah are now also known as artists outside of Ghana.

In Mexico, due to tradition, closed coffins are widespread, in which a pane of glass is used as a visible surface above the face of the deceased. The traditional open burial is possible in the (practically) closed coffin.

Glass coffin

Glass reliquary Pope John XXIII. (1958–1963)

The reliquary shrines of many saints and blessed are made of glass. In St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City about is the whole body relic of the holy Pope John XXIII. in a glass shrine.

Glass coffins in a fairy tale

Glass coffin, illustration from an Icelandic edition of Snow White , 1852

The glass coffin is a common feature in fairy tales and metaphors, as glass used to be considered precious. In The Glass Coffin , a poor tailor frees a girl from the container, in Snow White a prince wakes the king's daughter. There is a legend from Bavaria in which four dwarfs sink a glass coffin into the waves. In Gerhart Hauptmann's Hanneles Himmelfahrt four young men put the dead Hannele in a glass coffin. The popular writer Wilhelm Schäfer used the metaphorical phrase placed in the glass coffin of Latin education .

Glass coffin as a metaphor

The fame of the glass coffin led to the term " Snow White's coffin" for a number of everyday objects with more or less transparent covers ; including vehicles like the Messerschmitt cabin scooter or the Volvo P1800 ES .

Current developments

Due to a change in the funeral culture in Western Europe, the canceled death grants in Germany, higher wood costs and stagnating or falling death rates , cheaper coffins are increasingly being imported from Eastern Europe. The market share in 2007 was 45 percent in Germany. The German coffin industry is reacting to this with a quality offensive and introduced a solid wood seal in 2008.


Austria's market leader Sargfabrik Moser was founded in 1957 in Bischofshofen , State of Salzburg , and moved to St. Michael im Lungau in 1979 . In Lungau (as of 2018) 35,000 coffins are produced annually, 45,000 in a branch in the Czech Republic built in the 1990s.


  • Heinrich L. Cox: The names of the coffin in continental West Germanic. A verbal geographical and folkloric study . Marburg 1967, Atlas of German Folklore, NF, Supplement 2
  • Patrick Farsen : Royal Coffins and Sarcophagi of the New Kingdom. Funeral accessories of kings and queens from the 17th to the 21st dynasty , Munich 2011.
  • Stefan Hess : The so-called plague coffin of Mandach - an informative testimony to early modern sepulchral culture . In: Argovia 125 (2013), pp. 124-133.
  • Museum for Sepulchral Art: boxes, carriage, caravan. On the way to rest . Accompanying publication to the exhibition of the same name, Kassel 1999.
  • Franz Knispel : On the history of the coffin . Vienna 1985.
  • Museum for Sepulchral Culture: Dead Chest - Dead Chest. Coffins from four centuries . Exhibition catalog, chasuble 2004.
  • Regula Tschumi : Hidden Art. The figural sedan chairs and coffins in Ghana. Edition Till Schaap, Bern 2014, ISBN 978-3-03828-098-9 .

Web links

Wiktionary: coffin  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Coffins  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Documents in the Swiss Idiotikon, Vol. 4, Col. 1247 f. ( Digitized version )
  2. ^ Provisions of the International Convention on the Transportation of Corpses
  3. Council of Europe Convention on the Transportation of Corpses
  4. Work guideline for the transport of corpses
  5. New logistics center: storage space for death, from March 17, 2014
  6. ^ Association of German Engineers - Department of Environmental Protection Technology: Emission Reduction - Systems for Human Cremation. ICS number 13.040.01
  7. Stefan Hess: The so-called plague coffin of Mandach - an informative testimony to early modern sepulchral culture . In: Argovia 125 (2013), pp. 124-133.
  8. ^ The way of everything earthly ( Memento of February 6, 2006 in the Internet Archive ) from the lexicon of the Wiener Zeitung, accessed on November 5, 2008
  9. ↑ Waste of money on idiots and drunkards. In: The time . April 25, 1986.
  10. ^ Regula Tschumi : The Figurative Palanquins of the Ga. History and Significance. In: African Arts , 46 (4), 2013, pp. 61–62.
  11. Regula Tschumi: Death bed for a living. A coffin for the Center Pompidou. In: Eva Huttenlauch (ed.): Saâdane Afif. Another Anthology of Black Humor. MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Verlag für Moderne Kunst, Nuremberg 2012, pp. 57–72
  12. ^ Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: Children's and Household Tales (No. 163). Göttingen 1850, 6th edition, Volume 2, p. 355
  13. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: Children's and Household Tales (No. 53). Göttingen 1850, 6th edition, vol. 1, p. 306.
  14. On the analysis of motifs under Theodor Ruf: The beauty from the glass coffin. Snow White's fairytale and real life. Wuerzburg 1994
  15. Alphons Steinberger: Bavarian legend wreath. A book for home and school. Munich 1897, p. 64.
  16. Gerhart Hauptmann: Complete Works. Volume 1, Frankfurt a. M./Berlin 1966, p. 577.
  17. ^ Wilhelm Schäfer: The thirteen books of the German soul. Munich 1922, p. XVI
  18. n-tv: Cheap imports - coffin industry reacts
  19. World record holder nailed a million coffins together, December 6, 2019, accessed December 6, 2019.
  20. History Moser timber industry,, accessed December 6, 2019.