What is the Difference Between a Casket and a Coffin?

Mary McMahon

For people who are not speakers of American English, being asked about the difference between a casket and a coffin might be confusing, because in most English speaking countries, a casket is a small box for holding jewelry, while a coffin is a box for burying the dead. However, in the United States, many people use the term “casket” to refer to a coffin, echoing a trend propagated by the American funeral industry, which is very fond of euphemisms. “Coffin” seems cold and final in the ears of funeral directors, while a “casket” seems more user-friendly.

In the United States, "coffin" and "casket" mean the same thing.
In the United States, "coffin" and "casket" mean the same thing.

Many Americans distinguish between a casket and a coffin on the basis of shape. They may use the term “coffin” to refer to a traditional rectangular box used for burial, while they think of a casket as a burial container which is tapered on both ends. The term “casket” is also sometimes used for a coffin with a split lid which is designed to allow people to view the decedent at an open casket funeral.

A hearse is typically used to move the coffin from a funeral parlor to a gravesite.
A hearse is typically used to move the coffin from a funeral parlor to a gravesite.

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Outside of the United States, most people refer to all burial containers as coffins, regardless as to their shape. However, the use of the term “casket” for a burial container started to spread in the 1990s, in no small part thanks to the outreach of American funeral homes, which have branches overseas in many English-speaking nations. Some people are distressed by the reach of the American funeral industry, arguing that traditional modes of burial should be retained, and rejecting the sometimes garish and overstated trappings of an American funeral.

Many funeral directors believe "casket" sounds friendlier than "coffin".
Many funeral directors believe "casket" sounds friendlier than "coffin".

Burial containers can be built from any number of materials, including plastic, metal, cardboard, wood, stone, and clay. They may be ornately decorated or left simple, and typically, handles are included to make the container easier to move. Funerary containers may be used for burial or cremation, with some firms designing special cremation coffins which are intended to break down quickly in the retort.

In some communities, the tradition of building a coffin for the deceased has been retained, especially in rural areas with a strongly traditional bent. In other regions, people purchase a coffin from a funeral home as part of a funeral package, although it is also possible to purchase coffins through wholesalers, coffin manufacturers, and wood workers. In the United States, people are specifically allowed to bring their own caskets or coffins to a funeral home for use in a burial or cremation, under the Funeral Rule, a law which is supposed to protect the right of funeral consumers.

A casket often features a more tapered shape.
A casket often features a more tapered shape.

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Discussion Comments


Alex94, that is not correct. Round caskets in Japan have not been in use since the sixth century.


Actually, it's the other way around. Caskets are rectangular boxes, sometimes with a split lid, while coffins are tapered at head and feet.


@cmsmith10: A coffin has six sides called plan view. A plan view is an orthographic projection of a 3-dimensional object and is a section viewed from the top. Coffins taper around the shoulders.

In Japan, most of their coffins are round. The round coffin resembles barrels and are made by coopers.

Coffins are made up of different types of wood, fiberglass and steel. They even make eco-friendly coffins made from purely natural materials that disintegrate.

Caskets are made in a rectangle shape. They are rounded with a tongue on the one side and a groove on the other. The groove is indentation for the tongue to fit into join them together. The whole top is assembled in a specially made vice, which gives the casket a rounded shape. The end pieces are added to the top and fastened down.


I heard coffins and caskets are built differently. Is this true?

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