coffin, closed receptacle for a corpse. Its purpose is usually to protect and to aid preservation of the body, although in the past some have believed that it may confine the spirit of the deceased. Bark, skins, and mats were commonly used in primitive societies to wrap the body prior to burial. Peoples living near rivers or oceans often buried their dead in canoes, and hollowed oak coffins have been found in the Bronze Age barrow. The Chaldaeans and the early Greeks enclosed a corpse in clay, sealing the coffin by firing it. The largest known stone coffins (see sarcophagus) are Egyptian. Wood and papier-mâché were also used in Egypt for mummy chests. Coffins lined with metal, usually lead, came into use in the Middle Ages. Most coffins used in the Western world today are made of elm or oak and are lined with bronze, copper, lead, or zinc.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.