The Woman in the Iron Coffin - Death, Burial and Iron Coffins

Death, Burial and Iron Coffins

How Almond Dunbar Fisk’s invention revolutionized death’s place in American life.

By Scott Warnasch

Iron coffins are fascinating artifacts of a time when friction between technology and tradition created a spiritual crisis in the early days of the United States. They’re also a great example of how the unintended effects of one invention can beget new and seemingly unrelated inventions and even new industries. 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, minimizing 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.

In addition to transportation and storage, Fisk’s coffins also provided a safe way to quarantine victims of contagious diseases, while still allowing for a traditional funeral and viewing. In a time before extensive use of photography, the coffin’s oval glass viewing window allowed next of kin to see and confirm the identity of the occupant without encountering odor or potential diseases. A third selling point was as a deterrent to grave robbers, who stole corpses to sell to medical schools for dissection.

Attitudes about death and burial were also changing at this time and have continued to evolve on these trajectories up to the present. By the early 19th century, the traditional social structure of town life centering around the church began to break down. Although still deeply religious, post-Revolution generations began to reject the puritanical philosophy of the colonial period. Furthermore, new ideas introduced by the growing waves of European immigrants, many not Protestant, began to defuse the hegemony of Pilgrim-descendant stock.

Outside events also began to challenge the traditional notion of death as ‘God’s Will.’ Devastating cholera epidemics, beginning in 1832, made no distinction between godly and godless or rich and poor, and killed thousands over the following decades. An outbreak in 1849 killed over 5,000 New Yorkers and 10 percent of Cincinnati’s population in a matter of months. The old link between sin and death was crumbling, and the sheer scale of death’s relentless presence seemed to demand a reevaluation of its meaning. One example of this shift was the Rural Cemetery Movement, which set out to re-contextualize death as a fundamental part of the natural world. Even the adoption of the word cemetery, coming from the Greek word for sleeping place, takes death out of the realm of the supernatural and reframes it within a more domestic, less judgmental context.

A tangible result of the movement’s philosophy is Mount Auburn Cemetery outside of Boston. Established in 1831, it’s the earliest example of a burial ground in a park-like setting, and it became the model for new cemeteries throughout the country. Unlike the Puritan churchyards of the 17th and 18th centuries that primarily reminded you that you were a sinner who would be dead soon, the visual language of Mount Auburn presented a more uplifting outlook. The naturalistically landscaped environment was meant to present a calming metaphor in which the living and dead were reintegrated into the circle of life and that death was just one of nature’s many mysteries to contemplate while strolling in a verdant, picturesque setting. Even the types of grave markers permitted represented a break with the past. Mount Auburn is also famous for its Egyptian-influenced architecture. Fisk’s sarcophagus-inspired design fit perfectly into this powerful set of funeral iconography.

By the time Fisk had perfected his coffins, the old churchyards of downtown Manhattan were well past capacity and were believed to be a cause of the pestilence plaguing the city. In 1847, state legislators passed the Rural Cemetery Act, which allowed for the establishment of the country’s first nondenominational, for-profit cemetery corporations. Several of these cemeteries were developed in what had been the hinterlands of Queens, including Mount Olivet Cemetery, the second and final resting place of the woman in the iron coffin whose reburial ceremony was performed in November 2016.

For more information about Fisk and other iron coffin occupants, visit the Iron Coffin Mummy website.