The Coffin Museum, Birmingham: an afternoon of death

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Last Saturday I visited the Coffin Works in the Jewellery Quarter where brothers Alfred & Edwin Newman set up their coffin adornment trade in 1894.

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The brothers had a background in brass work and had originally begun their careers as furniture manufacturers until they realised death was way too profitable to resist. In Victorian times funerals were huge events; a perfect occasion to show off the family wealth. Now I am not saying the brothers had a sinister and conniving hand here but Birmingham suffered the highest mortality rate in England during the decade they opened shop.

For the city’s poorer residents there was a Burial Club where folk paid in a few pennies a week to lessen shame when their time came since having a respectful funeral was the be all and (literally) end all.

The Newman Brothers did not just supply their wares for the deceased of Birmingham. They were proud to provide for famous people including the coffin handles for Winston Churchill’s burial:

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The grippers could have looked something like this:

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Or this:

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Or something fancier like this:

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The practice of cremation was rare until after World War II when housing had to take priority over spare land for bodies and so in their Victorian hey day the Newmans were raking in an abundance of cash for corpses. Moolah for the mort. Dosh for the departed. Readies for the rested. Payment for the passed. Lolly for the laid out. Bankrolls for the bellied up.

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By 1965 50% of all deaths were followed up with cremation which began the slow decline of the company. The management must have been highly angry by falling sales and took it out on factory staff by cutting their 20 minute tea break by 5 minutes to improve their piece-work. There was an uproar and a lady called Dolly was forced to organise successful strike action.

Prior to 1700 only the rich were buried in coffins. Lesser beings were wrapped in a shroud or a bed sheet and tossed into an open grave.

Mourning gowns for Victorian widows were big business:

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The essential bodily fluids:

“UP THE VILLAAAAAAA!”. A shroud for an Aston Villa fanatic. 

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Jamaican families usually requested a peach shroud for their loved ones as they believed it suitably set off their dark complexions. 

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A useful gadget for propping up the chin of the deceased so they looked more alert in their box:

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Even the courtyard of the coffin factory is coffin shaped, although not an intentional Feng Shui design. The canopy was up for a later social gathering (no, not a wake).

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Prior to 1700 only the rich were buried in coffins. Lesser beings were wrapped in a shroud or a bed sheet and tossed into an open grave. The words coffin and casket are commonly used interchangeably, however a coffin has six sides (hexagonal) and a casket four (rectangular).

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I can confirm it will be neither a fancy coffin or casket send off for me. Instead, my nearest and dearest will be ordered to convert my remains into a tree:

www.earthporm.com/bye-bye-coffins-these-organic-burial-pods-turn-your-loved-ones-into-trees/

19 Comments

      1. Just wanted to say I shared this on Twitter and the museum replied with this –

        “Thanks for writing this – you took some great images and we love all the puns!” @CoffinWorks

        Wasn’t sure if you get to see this otherwise 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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