Coffin vs. Casket: Key Differences Explained

Published August 24, 2020
Flowers on wooden coffin

Funeral planning involves many details, including whether you prefer a coffin or a casket. Coffins and caskets may look the same to the untrained eye, but there are differences between the two, with caskets being the more popular and widely available option in the United States.

Characteristics of a Casket

Caskets have a rectangle shape with four sides. A casket's lid is usually dome-shaped and split into two sections set on hinges. This allows for opening the top section to make the deceased's head and upper body visible during a memorial service or funeral. The interior of a casket is lined with cloth. Caskets have two long rails that run along the two sides for lifting by pallbearers.

coffin at a cemetery

Origin of the Casket in the United States

In the U.S., coffin and casket are often used to describe the burial box as if they're the same thing, but this doesn't hold true in other countries. A "casket" in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe refers to a jewelry or keepsake box. The term casket began to be used in the U.S. in the late 1800s because it had a more positive connotation for people struggling with grief and the death of a loved one. This also was in keeping with the shape of a casket which looks less like a human body than a coffin and therefore was thought to be less upsetting to grieving funeral attendees.

Characteristics of a Coffin

Coffins initially appear rectangular, but they extend out where a person's shoulders would rest inside it, creating an uneven hexagon or octagon shape. The top and bottom where the feet and head lay are also tapered, with the top edge wider than the bottom one. This design is called "anthropoid," which means it is formed in the shape of a normal human body. They tend to have a flat lid that can be lifted off completely for funeral showings. Coffins are also lined inside with cloth, but unlike a casket, they have handles on the side instead of rails for carrying by pallbearers.

People carrying coffin

Differences Between a Coffin and a Casket

Aside from the difference in shape, lids, and railings, caskets and coffins differ in terms of pricing and materials.

  • Caskets tend to be made from higher quality wood or materials and overall have more expensive details. Casket materials can range in quality and cost, including caskets made out of plastic, medium density fibreboard (MDF), various types of wood, copper, stainless steel, bronze, or fiberglass.
  • Coffins are usually made from MDF, though they can be made from iron, fiberglass, and steel.
Infographic explaining differences between Coffins and Caskets

Caskets are More Popular

Caskets are by far the most popular option in the U.S. and are much easier to obtain than coffins. You can purchase them through funeral homes as well as through major retailers like Walmart and Costco. Coffins, on the other hand, are not commonly offered for sale by funeral homes. They can be purchased online, and funeral homes must by law accept a coffin or casket, whether you bought it through them or not. You also have the option of making a coffin on your own, or you can hire a carpenter to make one. However, before you purchase or make a coffin, consult with your cemetery of choice to make sure they will accommodate burying a coffin instead of a casket.

Casket and Coffin Prices

The average cost for a casket is between $2,000 and $5,000. It's possible to find caskets with more elaborate details and higher end materials like mahogany wood and bronze or copper embellishments for $10,000 up to around $30,000. The cheapest casket options made from steel and wood can be found for around $600 to $800. Coffins are cheaper than caskets to make because the shape means that less wood is necessary to build it. However, since they're harder to find for sale, you may need to have one special ordered, which can add substantially to their cost. Wooden coffins can range in price from $600 up to about $3,000 and since you'll most likely need to buy it online, you will have to factor in the cost of shipping too. If you make it yourself, you can expect to spend about $300 in lumber and materials for an average-size plain coffin.

Non-Traditional Coffins and Caskets

Adherents of "natural burial" or "green burial" prefer to be buried in a way that is more friendly to the environment. Although not every cemetery will accept this type of burial, which may be due to restrictions by local or state laws, more and more are open to this practice. In this type of burial, you have the option of being buried in a "casket" or "coffin" that is built from non-traditional materials, such as cardboard, paper, large leaves and branches, wicker, fabric, or other items. The idea behind this type of casket or coffin is that it will eventually degrade naturally into the earth along with your physical remains.

Knowing the Difference Between Caskets and Coffins

Although the purpose of a casket and coffin are the same, there are key differences in terms of their shape, design, and costs. Since most funeral homes in the U.S. only carry caskets, you will most likely only encounter them at funerals. Coffins, however, can be found for sale online, or you can build your own. If you or a family member would strongly prefer burial in a coffin, make sure you discuss this choice with your funeral home first to make sure they will accept a coffin in the cemetery.

Coffin vs. Casket: Key Differences Explained