Choice of Coffin: Your Questions Answered

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors is based in Horsham and has three further branches throughout West Sussex. The company was established in 1855 and has cared for generations of local families with a focus on bespoke services and a professional yet sensitive approach. Part of this involves ensuring that customers receive excellent advice, appropriate to their […]

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Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors is based in Horsham and has three further branches throughout West Sussex. The company was established in 1855 and has cared for generations of local families with a focus on bespoke services and a professional yet sensitive approach. Part of this involves ensuring that customers receive excellent advice, appropriate to their circumstances. Here, Freeman Brothers’ Manager, Abi Pattenden, talks about a surprisingly sensitive subject: the implications of coffin choice for burials.

Having a wide range of coffins to choose from is something that can be very important to some people when they are planning a funeral. At Freeman Brothers, we pride ourselves on offering lots of options for our customers – both from coffins we hold to stock to those which have to be custom-ordered. We can also put customers in touch with suppliers who will make something completely bespoke for them, perhaps printed with photos or an individual design, and help people who want to decorate a coffin themselves.

Sometimes, customers want to source their own coffins, and while we understand why, this is something which we try to discourage. There are several reasons for this.

  • No-one knows what tests the coffin has been subjected to. Coffins, and their fittings, need to be weight-bearing, not only for when they are carried but for when they are moved in and out of the hearse for the funeral. They may also need to be moved into different locations in the funeral director’s premises as part of the preparations of the funeral and being robust and suitable for this is a necessity.
  • Coffins are used to identify the person who has died. A coffin needs to include the person’s full name, date of death and age at death as a minimum – this is usually included on a nameplate but is sometimes integrated into the design. If the customer orders this themselves, they may not be aware of this, but even if they are, what recourse is there if the information is provided incorrectly – or not at all?
  • No-one knows who has made the coffin, and under what conditions. Some coffins, especially woven ones, are made by traditional methods which don’t need lots of technology, and it would be possible that this work could be carried out by workers under poor conditions – especially in countries where labour practices have less scrutiny.
  • Neither the customer, nor ourselves, knows the standard to which the coffin has been made or the materials used. This can be a problem with cremations – where there is an accreditation scheme in place to ensure that coffins are not produced in ways that will prove dangerous to crematorium staff or cremation equipment during the cremation process. It can also be a problem with burials where a certain amount of structural integrity is required.

On this latter point, the structural integrity of a coffin is particularly important when the person who has died is going to be buried.

When a grave is dug, the size of the coffin is usually taken into account: the outside size will be provided to the person or institution who is going to do the job so they can ensure that the grave is of sufficient length and width to accommodate. Digging a grave can be a lengthy job, especially in certain soil conditions and even more so when it is dug by hand (as does still happen in some instances). Therefore, preparing a larger plot than needed is to be avoided, so sizes need to be accurate. A poorly-made coffin can be irregular in dimensions. Even worse, it can ‘sag’ at the sides, rendering it wider than when initially measured – with the potential for disastrous consequences.

It’s not just coffins that aren’t well made that can be a problem when someone is buried. The practicalities of a burial are sometimes difficult to consider, but at the most basic level, it involves a large quantity of earth being placed on top of the coffin – and this earth will have significant weight. It stands to reason that some coffins will be better than others at bearing this weight. When the coffin cannot hold the weight, it will collapse, and this will be visible as the grave will sink – this can be very dramatic with a drop of over a foot of soil occurring almost overnight. Customers can often find this very distressing. Conversely, stronger coffins will lead to a more gradual settling over time.

For most funeral directors, veneered coffins will probably make a significant percentage of those they see on funerals, and this is no different for Freeman Brothers. Veneered coffins are usually cheaper than their solid wood equivalents, for a variety of reasons: they are machine- rather than handmade, they are constructed from cheaper raw materials and, because they are the most usual choice, they can be made and transported in bulk. However, they are designed to be cremated, rather than buried. Equally, cardboard coffins, which are at the cost-effective end of the range of ‘alternative’ materials, are perhaps not as strong as woven willow, but willow coffins are handmade and usually more costly as a result.

Sometimes, people choose a cheaper coffin out of principle of feeling anything more expensive is a waste, or because they feel that the person who has died wouldn’t want money to be spent on it. I have every sympathy with this view. However, some people are trying to keep all of the funeral costs as low as they can, and it can then make it very difficult to discuss the implications of their coffin choice with them, without a sense that they are being induced to make a different choice. There is nothing wrong with choosing one of these coffins for a burial, but understanding what this may mean is very important.

It is worth noting as a final point that you don’t always need a coffin for a burial (one is always required for cremation). You can visit our previous blog post here to read about just such a funeral that we arranged previously.


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Written by Abi Pattenden


March 8, 2023

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