In old Persian scriptures a taboo expressed that anyone who touched a dead person was “powerless in mind, tongue and hand”. Evil spirits associated with the deceased struck them with paralysis. Well thank goodness that’s not true or my entire family would have been paralytic a hundred times over.

Ancient people also believed that high mountains and cliffs were the nearest places to paradise, so they buried their dead on cliffs in coffins carved out of a single piece of wood.

The Hanging Coffins of Sagada

Perhaps the most famous of the suspended coffins are those of the Bo people, a 3000 year-old minority group on the border of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces who believed that the higher the coffin, the more prominent or honourable the deceased.

The Hanging Coffins of the Bo

How simple their coffins seem compared to the fussiness of Victorian designer coffins. My undertaker father always insisted that his children were well mannered, polite and sympathetic. That was tough enough, so I’m really glad he didn’t push us out the door onto the street corner and make us do this!

Ah, the subtlety of salesmanship. This woman models coffin accessories. The rings dangling from her hat are from coffin robes and could also be used as less expensive handles. Hanging on her dress are coffin chains and a full, proper sized frame to indicate that this coffin maker also made frames.

She wears two coffin plates, one around her neck and the other on her chest flanked between two coffin handles. Coffin plates were often inscribed with genealogical information and then removed and passed on to the family.

Although I can’t see them, I’m sure she has a few coffin nails on her person as well.

Coffin nails weren’t merely functional. A talented man, or woman, hammered nails to decoratively spell out the name of the deceased on the lid.

Today, online witches and herbal magicians collect and sell old coffin nails. Their use in rituals and as a tool to inscribe candles apparently makes their spells more powerful. Who knew?

We may have handed out free potholders with the funeral home’s telephone number indiscreetly printed on one side, and there may have been stacks of Jesus fans sporting the funeral home’s “motto” on the back, but we never did this:

And we didn’t have one of these in our town either.

Instead, one room in our funeral home was designated as “the showroom” – a room full of caskets, each propped up on casket trucks. How many times did I crawl underneath a casket and take a nap? Can’t count them. It was the coolest room, as in temperature, in the whole rambling house. Maybe it was the congregation of those rectangles of steel in cool colors that chilled me to the bone.

We stocked only one coffin. An option for the modest budget, it was made of pressed wood and covered in grey-as-a-rainy-day felt. It sold for $395.00. Caskets were the preferred piece of funereal furniture in the South. North American undertakers hijacked the use of the word casket, originally a jewellery box, or a box in which to place precious things. Fair enough.

While coffins are lidded, caskets have a split top, the better to see you, my dear. I think most Southerners thought that embalming was invented solely for the purpose of keeping Great Aunt Flossie looking good, even after death. Caskets were most often left open during viewings and funerals. Psychologists say that it can be an important step in the mourning process to view the deceased. I don’t agree. I think it’s an incredibly personal decision. Viewing the deceased doesn’t make opening a closet full of untenanted clothes less traumatic. It doesn’t ease the effect of dozens of reminders. People mourn differently, heal differently, some not at all.

At the Mass of Our Lady of Prompt Succor there was applause when they finally closed the casket at the end of the service. That doesn’t happen often, not even for very bad people, and never in my memory. This was the scene of one of the symbolic funeral services that marked the fifth anniversary of Katrina. Hundreds of people dropped notes, cards and letters into the casket. One young girl’s note read, “Go away from us.” Many were hopeful that the symbolism of burying their grief would bring closure. Perhaps it did, or will. But one resident remarked, “You will never bury Katrina.”


  1. Hi Kate! Loved this passage ... looking forward to your memoir. Best, Daisy

    How many times did I crawl underneath a casket and take a nap? Can’t count them. It was the coolest room, as in temperature, in the whole rambling house. Maybe it was the congregation of those rectangles of steel in cool colors that chilled me to the bone.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Just a quick P.S. (Kate, I haven't figured out how to use my avatar, etc., on blogger. At SunnyRoomStudio, I use wordpress, so it's a mystery I'm trying to resolve!)

  4. Thanks so much Daisy. Everyone uses WordPress these days. I feel slightly out of the loop! Thanks so much for your comments. I do appreciate them.

  5. Do you mind if I add your link to my blogroll? I'd be happy to do so!