Why a Glass Coffin?

The glass-covered coffin of the Haraldskær Woman.

The glass-covered coffin of the Haraldskær Woman.

My daughter and I roamed around three floors of an antique mall in Louisville, Kentucky, one day. This mall was incredible, as it contained many antiques that a viewer might find in a museum – and many items that you may never see in a museum, but that you may find in a funeral home. One of these items was a coffin that contained a glass window at the head of the coffin. While my daughter doubled over in nervous laughter when she saw that coffin, I was curious as to why the glass existed.

After some research, I came to the conclusion that the coffin windows existed for two reasons – first, to signal to others that the corpse was indeed dead and, secondly, to provide a means for viewing the corpse without opening the casket.

In one instance, M.C.H. Nicolle, of France, patented a somewhat bizarre coffin signal in 1899, in which a hammer would be released by movement of the supposed corpse, swinging down and breaking a glass window directly over the head, allowing air to enter the previously sealed coffin. The alarm was simply the sound of the breaking glass, since the device is used only before burial. If anyone ever did wake from a trance in one of these coffins and lifted his or her head, the result would appear to be a face full of broken glass followed by a blow from the falling hammer (see Signals from the Grave).

That glass window also was used for viewing. This came in handy when funerals did not (or do not) use embalming methods. The casket could remain closed to conceal rapid deterioration (which would lead to horrid smells), but the deceased’s face still could be viewed by surviving friends and loved ones. Caskets with viewing windows were popular during the Victorian era.

Leaving the window behind, the extreme coffin is the glass coffin. Known at least during the late 1800s in Germany,* the glass coffin provided a means to view death in all its glory. The Jackson family recently was reported to argue about whether to display Michael Jackson’s body in a glass coffin so fans could view his entire body during the memorial to his death. Glass coffins used to display bodies that are not buried include the glass-covered coffin of Haraldskær Woman on display in the Church of Saint Nicolai in Vejle, Denmark (shown above) and the glass coffin of Vladimir Lenin, which is located in the Red Square in Moscow.

Glass caskets are favored for some funeral viewings, especially if they are vacuum sealed. The casket itself cannot be used for burial because it is too fragile. Glass caskets for pets, however, have become popular as have glass urns for human cremains. Some of these urns actually can contain the remains baked into the glass, which then can be used to hold keepsakes belonging to the deceased. If you are curious about glass caskets, talk with your local funeral home director about a purchase or rental.

* The Brothers Grimm wrote a fairy tale concerning a glass casket in 1884.

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