When you go shopping for clothes, furniture or other items you use every day, how often do you have them custom-made? Maybe you place a custom order for something special like a wedding dress or kitchen cabinets, but for the most part we live in an off-the-rack world, right down to our final purchase, our coffins. But the world was not always “off-the-rack.” Originally clothing and other large purchases were all custom-tailored. Coffins were among those items that were custom-made to fit the clients.
Just as today, not everyone is the same height or body type. Think of the founding fathers: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both 6’2”, tall for the time, while John Adams and Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were 5’7”, average height. No single coffin design would fit all four men correctly, since it needs to be wider at the shoulders, and narrower at the feet.
These custom coffins would have been produced by cabinetmakers, who produced fine furniture for their communities. Many offered ‘cradle to the graves services’ making everything an individual needed in a lifetime from his first cradle to his final coffin. Over time, some cabinetmakers began to specialize in coffins and offer other funeral related services including grave digging and hearse rental. These cabinetmakers became the town’s undertakers. While the undertakers developed a new professional tradition that emerged as the modern Funeral Director, they never forgot their roots as cabinet makers. During the late nineteenth century, several new coffins and other funeral paraphernalia were developed to ensure that the expectations of the deceased and their family could be met. The town of Madison has an ongoing funerary heritage. Caleb Burroughs, a cabinetmaker, began selling coffins in 1820, the family business is still in operation today.
To learn more about the transition for cabinetmaker to undertaker or to see a demonstration coffin from the nineteenth century please visit the Museum of Early Trades & Crafts during its current exhibit Ghosts, Ghouls & Gravestones: The Trades of Burial.