By Claudia Johnson
- staff photo by Claudia Johnson
The metal burial cases, which began to be used in Giles County in the 1850s, redefined the terminology of dead body containers away from the harsh connotations of “coffins." The mummy-shaped cases had luxurious silk lining materials, glass viewing windows for the face or the entire corpse and individualized nameplates and varied in length from 22 inches to six and one half feet. Several of the cases were unearthed during the removal of bodies from the Mason cemetery, including one very fancy case molded to appear shroud-draped. All but one of the caskets had cracked or broken.
In the early days of the county before undertaking became a business coffins were made by carpenters and usually cost $1.50 a piece, the price for the man's work, according to Tom Carden in his 1904 articles on the history of the Pisgah community. A winding sheet and veil were the furnishings for the corpse.
Initially, Giles County undertakers were also furniture makers who advertised custom coffins and hearse services in local newspapers. Pulaski furniture maker C.W. Cofer advertised in the Feb. 21, 1850, edition of a local newspaper, The Western Standard, that coffins “will be made either fine or plain according to order on reasonable terms.” Cofer assured “those who patronize him” that had “a fine hearse” and would be “well prepared at all times to attend burials at the shortest notice possible.”
Frazier and Lytle purchased Cofer’s furniture company in 1852 and continued to operate the business on the south side of Madison Street, a few doors from the southwest corner of the public square. They advertised custom made coffins and use of a hearse in the Oct. 20, 1852, Democrat.
Carden noted that in 1854 there was an epidemic of dysentery, called brown flux, which killed people by the score, ofttimes almost exterminating large families. The historian told of the Sept. 2, 1854, death of Pisgah land owner Charles Pitts who was buried in a metallic coffin.
“I think it was the first coffin of that kind ever seen at this place,” Carden remarked. “It was the shape of a man and was copper lined and was very heavy. It is said to have looked very frightful.”
The Nov. 19, 1858, The Pulaski Citizen advertised the new furniture firm of Frazier and Mitchell, which had “the exclusive right to sell Crane’s world renowned patent metallic burial casket in Giles County.” Customers could choose from a selection “from fine to plain.”
By April 15, 1859, the firm’s advertisement in the Citizen identified the business as “dealers in furniture and chairs, and undertakers.” Wood coffins, both fine and plain, were “still made at short notice.” A hearse and horses were furnished free, and metallic burial caskets “of all sizes from infant’s to a grown person’s” were available. “To all who have seen these caskets, they need no recommendation from us” noted the advertisements.
James Mason, son of early settlers Isaac and Nancy Mason, died in December 1859 and was buried in the Mason cemetery in a fancy metallic case with a glass viewing panel. When archeologists working in the cemetery discovered the casket, the glass panel had collapsed against the body, preserving some of the blue suit in which he was buried.His brother, Albert, a Civil War solider, died in January 1865 and was buried in a very plain metal case, which archeologists unearthed. Several more of the cases were found during the removal of bodies from the Mason cemetery, including one very fancy case molded to appear shroud-draped. All but one of the caskets had cracked or broken.
In the summer of 1859 a competitor in the furniture and funeral business, John J. Ducker, promised that “all orders for coffins will be promptly and speedily filled at any hour of the day or night and delivered to any part of the county at any specified hour” from his shop on the west side of the square.
“He has purchased a beautiful hearse, which together with a pair of gentle and reliable horses and a careful driver are at the command of all who patronize him in the undertaking business,” he promised, adding, “A share of the public patronage is most respectfully solicited.”
In June 8, 1860, Pulaski Citizen, A.L.& W.A. Crow announced that their stone cutting business on 3rd Main Street, South, would take “country produce, promissory notes, or in pinch, cash” in exchange for anything in their line. Work would also be given “in liquidation of any just debt.”
In the same Citizen issue George W. Woodring advertised a “fine assortment of monuments made of the finest statuary and Italian marble, and purchased in such a manner as to enable him to furnish them a great deal cheaper than they have ever been bought in this market before.”
He also promoted stone cutting, monuments and tombs of every description available at his stone yard on Second Main Street near the square “at cash prices for horses, mules or pork.”
At the onset of the Civil War Frazier and Mitchell advertised that they were the “only house in the county” that kept Crane’s Metallic Caskets.
Two and a half years after the Civil War ended, Sam C. Mitchell & Co., was advertising metallic and wood coffins, a “splendid hearse” and Mitchell’s undertaking services with “terms: cash.”While the style and expense of coffins had varied according to wealth even in colonial times, the 19th century witnessed a sustained era of coffin improvements. With the basic idea of storing a dead body within a closed container fairly well established, the improvements in the mid-nineteenth century aimed at a more protective and aesthetic device.
The metal burial cases advertised in Pulaski in the 1850s had débuted in Providence, R.I., in the late 1840s. Cincinnati, Oh., stove- and hollowware manufacturers Crane, Breed & Co. purchased the Fisk Metallic Burial Case Company in 1853 and quickly began large-scale production.
These metal "cases" redefined the terminology of dead body containers away from the harsh connotations of "coffins." The mummy-shaped cases had luxurious silk lining materials, glass viewing windows for the face or the entire corpse and individualized nameplates and varied in length from 22 inches to six and one half feet. They were advertised as “thoroughly enameled inside and out” and purported to be "impervious to air and indestructible."
When properly secured with cement, Fisk's metallic cases were purported to be "perfectly air tight and free from exhalation of offensive gases."
The cases were advertised in large northern cities as "preserving in the most secure and appropriate manner, the remains of the dead from sudden decay, from water, from vermin and from the ravages of tee [sic] dissecting knife," drawing attention to the concern that grave robbers would remove bodies for study in medical schools, a common problem in the mid-19th Century.