Coffins and Caskets

Although these two words are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between a coffin and a casket.  A proper coffin is wider at the shoulder and tapers toward the feet.  This was felt to be a prudent saving of costly wood as there was no need for width all the way to the bottom.  This style is still to be found in Europe today. Coffins were sometimes very simple pine boxes, unlined and unadorned. Fancier models were lined, had a coffin plate of brass or silver with the deceased’s name and dates and sometimes a sentiment such as “Our Darling” or “Beloved Wife”, and had three metal handles on each side for the six pallbearers to grasp on the way to the grave. Graves were sometimes lined with fir branches, and after the coffin was lowered, bricked over to discourage graverobbers or other disturbance.  It was not unusual for cabinet or furniture makers to do a brisk side trade in coffin making.


Lizzie Borden’s father, Andrew J. Borden, was a carpenter by training before branching out into farming and real estate, and although not a mortician, he did build coffins and was an “undertaker” in the sense of providing items needed for a funeral such as chairs, coffin stands, conveyance to the grave, and other incidentals. A newspaper article tells of Mr. Borden displaying a prominent Civil War casualty in the arcade window complete with bunting in the storefront  of the furniture business he owned with partner William Almy, so as more citizens could view the body and pay their repects in a time before the rise of the conventional funeral “parlor”. 

theophilus_blake_coffin_plate.jpg coffin plate

Embalming became a necessity in transporting Civil War dead from a distance back home again, but before those times, the dead were usually quickly buried and not embalmed.  For this reason, in their haste, errors were made and those in comas or showing signs of death were mistakenly buried alive.  Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story of this unsettling possibility in his 1850 story, The Premature Burial.  Many patented safety coffins were invented to prevent this by means of a bell rope tied to the hand of the buried person which would communicate with the living by means of a bell above the ground.  Sometimes a flag could be raised, or even explosives ignited by the unfortunate Undead.

Exhumations over the years have proven that premature burial did indeed take place, however the expressions “saved by the bell” and “dead ringer” do NOT come from this situation. “Saved by the bell” has its origins in the boxing ring, and “dead ringer” refers to substituting a look-alike for the genuine.


A casket originally referred to a small chest for storing and carrying jewels or precious objects.  A casket is a rectangular container of the same width from top to bottom.  It is generally padded and lined, and goes into the ground after the grave has been lined with a vault. Today cemeteries still use concrete vaults or the new resin “grave liners” which also have sealed lids. Caskets usually open at the top so the head and shoulders of the deceased may be viewed at the wake, and have the customary three handles on each side for pallbearers.

For more information on Victorian safety coffins, click on the following link for an excellent article


Victoria mourns the Prince Consort



The Prince Albert Memorial in London

With the death of Albert, Queen Victoria set a trend for deep mourning rituals and rules which would dictate the standards on both sides of the Atlantic for decades.  The inconsolable widow declared she was ready to join her beloved spouse in days after his demise due to typhoid fever, but she lived on another 44 years, building memorials to her idolized husband all over England.

Queen Victoria circa 1900

Victorian Sentimentality in Music


Before the radio, every home which could afford it had a parlor piano, and most young ladies of the family could “play a little”.  The hymnal was a standard to be seen on the music rack, as well as ornate, over-sized pages of sheet music which featured vignettes of touching scenes on their covers.  The tunes were sung to dozing infants in front of the fire, and passed down from generation to generation.

Some of the most sentimental and poignant melodies were inspired by the Civil War, and many featured heart-rending lyrics about waiting mothers.  Perhaps the most popular melody of this type was Just Before the Battle, Mother.


The themes which were so universal to tender hearts everywhere dealt with loss and grief, separation and death.  Motherhood was held in such high regard that many songs had a grieving mother, a mother lost to death, or a child’s loss of its mother as themes.  These became known as “tearjerkers” and were a staple of the music writer’s industry for a time well after WWI.   The Baggage Coach Ahead is one such very popular sad song about the loss of a mother and a father’s explanation to a little child about the mother being in the “baggage coach ahead” as they were taking her body home for burial.  Many of these songs have entered into the realm of American folk music.  Many of the lyrics were written by  women, some were mothers.


To hear some of these old favorites, visit the links below- you may need a handkerchief.




The Harvest of Years


Another symbol which was particularly popular on headstones of men who had lived a long span of 70 or more years was the sheaf of wheat.  There are several excellent examples carved in very high relief to be found at Oak Grove. The symbolism of gathering in the harvest of years parallels the familiar figure of Death, with his scythe, preparing to reap the harvest at Life’s end. 

 srreaper4.jpg Gustave Dore’s Grim Reaper

 Occasionally one sees a single blade of wheat, millet, oats, or another cereal grain.


Images in Black and White

weisse_rose.jpg Oak Grove may well be one of the best places in the state to find examples of Victorian funeral symbolism, which was a language understood by all who passed through the cemetery in the nineteenth century. The Language of Flowers had long been a part of Victorian sentiment, and this transfered to the grave as well. Ladies often received floral tributes in stone of roses, ivy, fern and lilies signfying hope for the resurrection of the body on the Day of Judgement, love, humility and sincerity (fern) and the clinging ivy (undying affection). Other symbols shown in the black and white slide presentation below are:
Olive branch– peace , Oak leaves– strength, fidelity, endurance, Palm- victory, triumph over death, Laurel wreath– victory, eternity, immortality, Anchor– hope or a career on the sea, Scroll or Book– Book of Life, scroll of St. Peter, Roll of the Saved, Doorway or Arch– portal between heaven and earth, Urn– harking back to Egyptian canopic jars, containers of the Spirit, Curtain– the end of the worldly life, Wreaths, Swags and Garlands– victory over death, immortal circle, honor, Lamb– grave of an infant or child.

All of the black and white photographs were taken with an inexpensive disposable camera using Kodac black and white film. Although it is pleasant to walk in cemeteries on sunny days, some of the best photographs are obtained on overcast days when shadows and bright sun do not interfer with capturing the sculptural detail in dark bas-relief. Keep a disposable camera camera handy in the glove compartment, for you never know when you may wish to capture an image of a particularly remarkable monument.

[slideshow id=576460752330284866&w=600&h=475]

The Granite Entry Arch 1873

 Perhaps the most recalled image of Oak Grove is its graceful granite Gothic Revival archway on the west side of the cemetery.  Prospect Street terminates under the arch.  Although the cemetery itself was designed in 1855 by Josiah Brown ( a city surveyor and architect), the archway was constructed in 1873.  The archway style is not unique to Oak Grove, and may be found in other New England cemeteries of the period.  “Oak Grove” is one of the most popular cemetery names in America, and in Fall River’s case, it is appropriate due to the extensive planting of oak trees on the nearly 100 acres of land.

What is remarkable are the exquisite wrought iron gates on either side of the arch; on the right, in front of the office, on the left, in front of the former Ladies Comfort Station. It is unfortunate that no photographs exist of the raising of this arch in 1873, for it must have taken ingenuity and strength.  Visitors to the cemetery who pass beneath this arch always pause to read the inscription :

The Shadows Have Fallen And They Wait for the Day