Ye Olde Eco-Burial: The Trapdoor Coffin

Funerals can be an expensive business. Once you’ve paid for the burial plot, the flowers, the officiator and the transport, the last thing you want to add on top of costings is a pricey coffin or casket. Today, coffins can be a simple pine box, a woven wicker affair, or in the case of some Ghanaian communities, an enormous fibreglass fish – but that’s a tale for another day.

BOOM, off you go. Image via Habsburger.net

For poor communities across time, a death could bankrupt a family. While middle-class families could be reduced to their knees from the social expectations of elaborate funerals, poor families were trapped in similar situations, where the basics of burial brought costs that pulled people deeper into poverty.

In order to avoid many of these damaging and unavoidable costs, many small parishes found their own practical solutions to certain burial ‘necessities’.

Surviving example in the Funeral Museum of Vienna – Image by Ekehnel via Wikimedia Commons

In the 16th and 17th centuries, plenty of rural parishes in Scotland utilised a communal coffin of sorts called a ‘common mortkist’, ‘bier’ or ‘parish coffin’. A similar device was employed in several other countries across Europe; one remaining example is a ‘Sparsarg’, Klappsärge, ‘Josephinischer Sarg’, or economy coffin from Austria. However, it must be said that the Austrians didn’t take so kindly to their trapdoor coffin. After Joseph II (Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of Habsburg lands) introduced the economy coffin as a mandatory burial measure in 1785, it was met with protests by church officials and the public alike and the whole system had to be withdrawn just six months later.[1] Intended to resolve the perceived issue of wasting wood, Joseph’s aversion to coffins didn’t apply to his own death as he was buried in a copper coffin upon his own death in 1790, albeit of a simper construction than his predecessors. This isn’t to say that reusable coffins didn’t exist in England (there’s always someone keen to contest), but Scotland appears to have the most detailed accounts and most interesting language relating to the practice.

A mortkist with the bottom hinge opened. Image via Kraxl-Maxl

The Scottish ‘mortkist’ was a remarkably simple and practical affair, whereby the deceased would be securely placed into the coffin as usual and carried to the gravesite. When the coffin was appropriately positioned above the grave (communal or private), a latch was pulled and the bottom swung open like a trapdoor, depositing the deceased into the earth with what one would hope was a gentle plop, rather than a dramatic thud.

As recorded in Jim Hewitson’s ‘Dead Weird’, In 1607, ‘the kirk session of Perth ordered ‘ane common mort-kist, whereby the dead corpses of the poor ones may be honestly carried unto the burial.’ However, these coffins didn’t fall out of use at the turn of the century, but are recorded being in use well into the Victorian era following outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, smallpox and plague that continued to affect Scotland’s population for far longer than we commonly think.

Image via Old Weird Scotland

Not all coffins were as ‘elaborate’ as the standard mortkist. One illustration of a well-used mortkist in Linlithgow describes it as both a ‘paroch kist’, being a coffin of the parish, or a ‘common coffin’. Quite unusually, this coffin does not hide its purpose and has no lid, inferring that the deceased would have to be covered with a shroud or other covering before the bottom was flicked open. One notable extant example of this type of parish coffin comes from Howden Minster and remains on display today as a curiosity from the past. However, it must be said that as with coffins, shrouds were also not without cost and a communal parish shroud would have been a possibility for the swiftly-deposited poor of the parish.

Howden Minster’s 17th Century Communal Coffin. Image via Remember Me Hull.

For many tiny, rural communities, a coffin, even one of the communal variety, was not a certainty. In certain settlements in the Highlands, Orkneys and the Hebrides, it was commonplace for individuals to be buried without a coffin at all. In places such as Sutherland, a reusable basket of twisted rushes was used in place of a coffin, called a ‘dead hamper’. This would also be removed and reused after the dead had reached their final resting place. It’s little wonder that there are so many records of Scottish people altering and reusing bookshelves and linen presses as rudimentary coffins when the reaper came knocking!

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Sources/Further Fun Reading:

https://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/mort_kist

https://oldweirdscotland.com

Dead Weird – John Hewitson – https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3EXyAwAAQBAJ&pg=PT44&lpg=PT44&dq=mortkist&source=bl&ots=VHp4EBTLip&sig=ACfU3U1gs_UzJEvhvOaXDooA-dL4b5eA4A&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwittM-01LbyAhUvRkEAHY-mBjIQ6AF6BAgZEAM#v=onepage&q=mortkist&f=false

https://www.habsburger.net/en/items/economy-coffin-simple-reusable-coffin-wood-instead-many-lavish-and-expensive-ones

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_coffin

[1]https://www.habsburger.net/en/items/economy-coffin-simple-reusable-coffin-wood-instead-many-lavish-and-expensive-ones

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