Willow, cardboard, veneer. Wool, even. The material in which we choose to be buried may be imbued with cultural, emotional or traditional significance.
We have the benefit of access to so many superb suppliers. We know the options are highly varied now, as are the means of interment. It is important that we don’t take this knowledge for granted, though, being intimately acquainted with our own industry’s gamut of possibilities.
For many families – irrespective of religion – the assumption is that a wooden coffin will be involved. This has long been the case and the exposition of a coffin in Durham this month will do much to assuage any doubts about the benefits of choosing high quality products.
St. Cuthbert’s coffin went on display in Durham cathedral. Hermit; bishop; the saint who inspired the Lindisfarne Gospels. Cuthbert died in 687, probably from tuberculosis, but his body was exhumed relatively shortly after death to be reburied in this coffin, which was made from English oak: tests have confirmed it was manufactured (‘crafted by artisans’ is probably a less anachronistic term), on Lindisfarne in 698.
However, it was lifted again, in 1104, and reopened several times thereafter to allow viewings of the remains. While it was interred for a short time behind the altar of the catherdral, it was also disturbed again – allowing new bacteria in to have their effect on the wood, each time – in the 19th century. This is a coffin that has truly served its purpose.
Some environments are more forgiving than others. Soil and humidity conditions have an impact; acidity is also an influence. If wood has been heavily varnished, that preservative may act as a moisture-barrier for years. Deterioration depends on the material that a coffin or container is made of and the environment it’s resting in, and archaeologists have even found Roman coffins in reasonable condition.
It surely behoves us to be transparent about the nature of materials used, and what the reality of material degradation is. Sadly, it’s still a matter of record that families may be offered non-ethical products for use in woodland or natural burials.
But perhaps, tongue in cheek, we can now offer a rather more positive caveat when it comes to ‘how long will it last?’