Posts Tagged ‘photography of death

02
May
19

Photographs: Exhumed Coffin

May 2019

 

Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Unknown photographer (American) 'Photograph Depicting an Exhumed Coffin' c. 1870s-1890s

 

Unknown photographer (American)
Photograph Depicting an Exhumed Coffin
c. 1870s-1890s
Albumen print

 

 

“Iron coffins are fascinating artefacts of a time when friction between technology and tradition created a spiritual crisis in the early days of the United States… Iron coffins were created to mitigate some of the negative effects of long-distance steam transportation on a traditionally sedentary society. The benefits of steam travel are many and obvious; however, there were also downsides that began to seep into the most personal corners of American life. One unintended consequence was that steam travel enabled unprecedented numbers of people to head out, die and be buried by strangers far from home. This was considered one of the most regrettable circumstances that could befall a family during this profoundly spiritual period. A distant death denied families and loved ones participation in funeral rituals and the privilege of assisting in the commencement of the greatest spiritual journey one could make. On a societal level, the absence of a funeral disrupted a central pattern of American life and weakened the bonds of local communities. This unfortunate situation befell the family of Almond Dunbar Fisk; however, Fisk, a Manhattan stove designer had the skills and vision to remedy an important part of this tragedy, and in the process helped redefine death’s place within American life.

The catalyst for the coffins was the death of Fisk’s brother, William, in the spring of 1844 in Oxford, Mississippi. Before refrigeration or embalming, there was no practical way to return William’s body to the Fisk family plot in upstate New York for a proper Christian burial. Their father, a minister, was particularly upset by this fact, so Fisk, well versed in the principles of airtight stoves and boilers, redirected his mastery of cast iron to create an airtight coffin capable of naturally preserving a body that could be safely and sanitarily transported long distance or stored for long periods even in the hottest weather. In addition to their airtight design, preservation was achieved by making the coffins as form-fitting to the body as possible, minimising the air inside and depriving the microbes of sufficient oxygen to survive and decompose the body. He received a patent for his ‘metallic burial case’ on November 14, 1848. Partnering with his father-in-law, he formed the company Fisk & Raymond and set up shop at 401 Broadway – just in time for the California Gold Rush. His coffins were first adopted by the nation’s political elite, who had the means and desire to avoid spending eternity buried in Washington DC. The cast iron caskets caught the public’s eye in 1849 when beloved former first lady Dolley Madison was laid out in one in a large public funeral ceremony. Soon, many other politicians and presidents followed suit, making the coffins an item of status and prestige in the eyes of the growing middle class. Rocketed to fame by such high-profile funerals, Fisk’s days of glory were – alas – brief. He died the following year at age 32 at his home in Queens and his body was shipped back upstate for burial in the family plot. His brother-in-law, William Mead Raymond, took over the family business and oversaw the creation of several new coffin models until his retirement in the 1870s. While the iron coffin industry didn’t survive past the 19th century, Fisk’s invention was the beginning of a trend away from wood coffins and can be credited as the progenitor of the metal caskets used today.”

Extract from Scott Warnasch. “Death, Burial and Iron Coffins: How Almond Dunbar Fisk’s invention revolutionized death’s place in American life,” on the PBS website September 21, 2018 [Online] Cited 26/04/2019

 

Unknown photographer (American) 'Photograph Depicting an Exhumed Coffin' c. 1870s-1890s

 

Unknown photographer (American)
Photograph Depicting an Exhumed Coffin
c. 1870s-1890s
Albumen print

 

Coffin Example, Canton Historical Museum

Coffin Example, Canton Historical Museum

Coffin Example, Canton Historical Museum

 

Coffin Example, Canton Historical Museum

 

 

The Coffins

The coffins were created by Almond Dunbar Fisk in 1848 in Queens, NY and marketed as Fisk Metallic Burial Cases.

Fisk’s iron coffins – modern marvels of their day – were specifically designed to naturally preserve their occupants. The coffins were developed in response to some of the inadvertent challenges that had resulted from the introduction of steam transportation in the preceding decades.

In a time before embalming or refrigeration, these coffins provided a sanitary means to transport the dead long distances in any season or preserve a body long enough for kin to travel to a distant funeral. In addition, they also provide a way to quarantine a body suspected of dying of a contagious disease (such as cholera which was first delivered from Europe via steamship in 1832).

Costing up to twenty-five dollars or more, the coffins were as expensive as they were practical. Fashioned after an Egyptian sarcophagus, these ‘mummiform’ coffins, first attracted the attention of the political elite beginning with the funeral of First Lady Dolley Madison and followed by the likes of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and President Zachary Taylor, to name a few. However, their style and practicality also attracted those outside of Washington DC, and they became a mark of status for the upper and middle classes during the early years of consumer culture and the nascent funeral industry. The gold rush, and western expansion in general, also helped expand the market beyond the elite urban deceased.

Text from the Iron Coffin Mummy website [Online] Cited 26/04/2019

 

Fisk and Raymond Coffin Brochure, 1850

 

Fisk and Raymond Coffin Brochure, 1850
Image: via Iron Coffin Mummy website

 

Fisk and Raymond Coffin Brochure, 1850

Fisk and Raymond Coffin Brochure, 1850

 

Fisk and Raymond Coffin Brochure, 1850
Image: via Iron Coffin Mummy website

 

 

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Mask’ 1994

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