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From Coffin To Casket: Early Burial Box Makers And Casket Manufacturers
Bonnie Durtnall

From Coffin To Casket: Early Burial Box Makers And Casket Manufacturers

When it comes to burial, the choices have always varied. This is also true with the type of vessels chosen to hold the remains of the deceased. Cultural norms and personal preferences play a significant role in selecting the right container. In North America, two common types used for ground burials are coffins and caskets. Although sometimes used interchangeably, they differ in shape and perception.

A Discussion on Caskets and Coffins

A coffin is derived from the Latin for basket – “cofinus.”  In North America, it tends to refer to a box of a specific shape. It is usually octagonal or hexagonal with a tapered shape – specifically coffins are wider at the shoulders and narrow at both the head and foot. This meant less wood was used in its overall construction than that required for a casket. Coffins have a matching lid and may feature various styles of coffin furniture or fittings including handles and decorations in brass, metal or other material.

Coffins come to mind when people think of early settlements or Western towns in movies. They are also the term most commonly used in the horror genre. Coffins are the sleeping places for vampires.

Caskets are rectangular. They may be devised of high-quality wood or other material. Caskets may be plain but tend to be ornate and elaborate in presentation. This reflects an early use of the word. A casket was where people once placed their valuable objects. It contained jewellery and family treasures. It only became common in the late 19th century in Guelph as the burial of the dead became increasingly under the influence of the funeral homes and undertakers.

The term “casket” was perceived as being more “gentile” than the word “coffin.” The shape of the coffin was too realistic; the casket removed this possibly offensive and sensitive factor from the equation. It was a softening of the approach to death. In fact, to some, including American author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), it was an approach that acted to remove the individual and society from the reality of their mortality. In Our Old House (1863) He wrote: “Caskets! – a vile modern phrase which compels a person of good sense and good taste to shrink more disgustedly from the idea of being buried at all.” Later word wit, Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) commented on what he saw as the difference between the two types of containers saying: “Those who used to call themselves undertakers used to call the burial box a coffin. Those who now call themselves morticians or grief therapists call the burial box a casket.”

Early Guelph Coffin Makers

As was the case across Canada, people in Guelph were initially buried in coffins. These burial boxes were not generally custom-designed or pre-made. They were requested when the need arose. In the 1800s, the producers of Guelph coffins were not manufacturers. They were not specialists in making coffins. Rather they were craftspeople who incorporated this product into their own trade.

In Guelph, unless an individual could afford purchasing a coffin from another city, they were made on demand by local carpenters – including cabinetmakers. Guelph had several men who were capable of providing this service. However, the better-known men were James Tovell, Nathan Tovell and William Brownlow.

Both the Tovells worked with Brownlow. When James died in 1854, his brother, Nathan, took over his role in the business. As Nathan and Tovell, the two continued to work together until around 1867. At this point, Tovell and Brownlow began to operate independently, advertising their services as both carpenter and undertaker. A 1967 ad for Brownlow stated “Coffins on hand or made to order…”

As for Nathan, he continued on in the business until 1868. At that point, he sold it to his nephew, another Nathan Tovell. Nathan Tovell, the nephew, was in partnership with John Mitchell. In 1882, the directory lists the following as Undertakers:

1.   M.J. Duignan at 133 Woolwich

2.   John Mitchell on Douglas

3.   Nathan Tovell on Quebec Street West

Of these three, the Tovell family was to prove the strongest. The business was to remain in the Tovell family until 1972 when it became the Lee and Custance Funeral Home - Tovell Chapel.

By this time, the focus was no longer on carpentry and coffin-making. The terminology had long since changed. Tovells were now undertakers. Their business was now the Tovell Funeral Home, offering all the specialized services that became characteristic of the trade as it moved toward the 20th century. Coffins were no longer in; caskets were front-and-centre. Moreover, funeral directors began to emerge as the replacement for undertakers and such businesses did not personally manufacture caskets. Casket companies did.

Guelph Casket Companies

Guelph was home to more than one casket manufacturer. These companies could produce caskets faster than carpenters had coffins. A plain one initially took 9 hours to complete. With the help of machinery, this was reduced to about one hour. The following Guelph casket companies di use machinery to ensure they could provide both caskets and funerary tools for the growing funerary industry.

1.   Dominion Casket Company

2.   National Casket Company

3.   Guelph Casket Company/Works

The (New) Dominion Casket Company

 This company was talking about locating in Guelph in 1911. They made an offer to the City to take-over the premises formerly occupied by the Canada furniture Company (Burrs) on 129 Oxford and Yorkshire Streets. They intended to employ 75 hands. However, this was on “the condition that the city loan the company $25,000 on a fast mortgage on the entire plant and grant a fixed assessment of $5,000 per annum for ten years.” The company would agree to pay 4.5% loan interest half-yearly with the principal paid in 20 equal amounts.

The city agreed to the terms. The directors at the time of the 1911 negotiations were:

·        J.D. Ripson

·        W.G. Whitehead

·        Charles Elliott

The company remained in business during 1916. In 1917, they renamed the Guelph company. Under the name the New Dominion Casket Company, they set up shop on Huskisson Street. W. g. Whitehead and JM Arnold were the owners and operators of the company at this time. In this new location, they received a fixed assessment which was to extend from 1918 until 1927.

National Casket Company

This company was to locate to Guelph in 1912. A bylaw considering their removal here was considered in 1911 but was soon withdrawn. Little further is known about this entity.

The Guelph Casket Company/Works

Of all the casket companies that came to Guelph, the most memorable is the Guelph Casket Works. Its founder was Fred W. Wood (-1955). Like earlier casket makers, he learned the basics while being a cabinetmaker. Initially, he owned and operated a furniture store in Elgin. The facilities also doubled as a funeral home. He also set up identical shops subsequently in Cornwall, Grand Valley and Erin. It was not until 1920 that he arrived in Guelph. At that time, he took over the facilities formerly occupied by the New Dominion Casket Company.

This now became known as the Guelph Casket Company. Located at 67 Wellington, it employed up to 20 employees making caskets and funerary-related items. In 1923, Fred Wood was the sole proprietor but was joined by his two sons: Arthur J. and Charles D. The former acted as a traveller; the latter was a shipper. When Fred Wood retired in 1945, Charles D. became president of the company.

Guelph Casket Works was a success from the beginning. It produced quality product used locally and across southern Ontario. The structure consisted of at least two floors, the second held the trimming room. These were divided into departments that handled the different aspects of producing and preparing a casket for shipping.

The process involved both mechanical and hand-work. The interiors of the coffins, for example, required sewing and the wood finishing was also applied by hand. Readying a casket for sale meant both the wood and the interiors required attention to detail. The casket had to be cut into the appropriate shape and size. The wood had to be smoothed down and finished off to create the desired appearance. It then would be inspected and moved to another department that handled interiors.

This involved sewing the right colour and style interior for the coffins. Once the inside of the coffin was sewn, it had to be attached to the interior of the casket. After that, the trimmings were added. This included handles and any ornamentation required for a specific model of casket.The completed product could be of oak, mahogany or walnut. The cloth coverings also ranged in both material and colour.

The company attended conventions to show off their product, including one for Ontario Funeral Services Association in 1949. They invited all Directors to “view their exhibit.” The event was one of many staff and owners attended.

Employees

Employers and employees made contributions to Guelph and its causes. In the 1940s, companies got behind the war effort, raising money in a variety of ways. Employees contributed to the purchasing of bonds. One of them , Floyd F. Green, painted a couple of paintings - one of Winston Churchill; the other of an RAF plane bombing German ships. The purchaser, his employer Fred W. Wood, resold the paintings promising to donate the money to the war effort.

Some employees, such as Floyd  F. Green, stayed with the company for ten years or more; others worked there for the summer only. However, the firm did provide a training ground for a few individuals. Among the “graduates” of this company were Gilbert MacIntyre. He left the company in 1933 to open a funeral parlour, on Quebec Street. This was to form the basis of what has since become Gilbert MacIntyre & Son Funeral Homes. It is located today on Dublin Street, where MacIntyre moved the business in 1938. It also has a branch on Gordon Street. 

Removal

In 1969, the Guelph Casket company building was torn down. At this time, Whynford D. Shepley was president. He did not live in Guelph but in Burlington. The intent was to move Guelph Caskets to a new location on York Road.

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