Lay Me Down to Sleep: The Design of Coffins, Caskets, and Alternative Containers

Susan Merritt
Faculty Emeritus, Graphic Design
School of Art & Design
San Diego State University

Throughout our country’s history coffins, caskets, and more recently alternative containers have been invented or perfected by anonymous contributors working in the factories that manufacture them. These wood and metal boxes that have become the standard for American burial are being called into question due to changing attitudes towards death and the shift from indifference to action on the part of some contemporary designers.
This research tracks the journey of a corpse from site of death to burial, through the containers it may inhabit. First, I examine containers that are designed to contain, enclose, and preserve as much as possible the corpse, including historical examples gleaned from nineteenth century advertisements. Starting with body bags as a means of transporting cadavers from the place of death to the burial container in which the body will be either buried or cremated, next I consider the evolution from eight-sided English coffin to four-sided American casket; the desire to preserve the body and methods to achieve preservation; the introduction of gasket mechanisms for sealing bodies in metal caskets to protect them from the elements; standardization of design, materials, and casket dimensions, including oversized caskets for bodies that don’t fit the established standards.
The second part of my research considers an alternative route for the corpse, in which it is not preserved but rather encouraged to decay and decompose. This section encompasses Green 2 burial, the rise of Green cemeteries and memorial preserves, sustainable materials and biodegradable burial containers, shrouds, and unassembled casket kits. It also introduces the work of several young designers who are stretching the boundaries of death by reimagining burial practices and reconfiguring burial containers through the use of biodegradable materials and sustainable technologies.