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Grave Matters

Funeral customs have changed through the years in Nebraska, but advertising of products and services has long been customary by those responsible for burial of the dead. Lincoln's Nebraska State Journal on March 15, 1878, praised the newest casket style: "A person in ill health would almost consider it a pleasure to die, if he could only be assured that his body would rest in one of those beautiful 'Globe Caskets' that Hardy & Hartley [furniture store owners] have on hand.

"Coffins are grave matters, and levity on subjects of death is out of place, if not sacrilegious; but we cannot resist the temptation of describing the caskets they have on hand. They are made of walnut or rosewood, covered with cloth; the inside trimmings are of satin, silk and lace, with padded sides and bottoms. The whole is enclosed with oval folding doors handsomely enameled and locked with a key."

A more elaborate home for the dead, in glass coffins, was proposed in 1883 by Henry H. Barry. The Omaha Daily Bee on March 27, 1883, reprinted information from the Philadephia Times that Barry "has for many years interested himself in transparent systems of burial. After conceiving the glass casket he kept it a secret until October 24th of last year [coincidentally, a week before Halloween], when it was patented." Barry then lived at Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Barry planned to pump the air from the glass coffin once a body had been placed inside. "The flesh of the subject will preserve its natural tints, and relatives and friends will be able to view the deceased for years to come. . . . Tenanted coffins can be piled up like any other merchandise anywhere, and stay there for years, Some people might prefer to keep relatives in their own houses nicely put away in coffins. There is nothing objectionable about the idea. When buried in cemeteries there will be no exhalations whatever, and in case of the removal of graveyards the coffins can be taken up and carried away with no more offense than would be given by so many kegs of nails."

Asked if the glass coffins would be smashed in cemeteries, he replied: "'On the contrary, we have a system of toughening the glass that makes it like iron. A spade struck against the coffin with a good deal of force will not break it. Body snatchers would get their fingers cut. There is no end to the variations which can be made on these coffins. The glass can be clouded, so that only the face is visible. It can be colored, or butterflies and weeping willows can be placed at intervals all over the surface. . . .'

"Mr. Barry then proceeded to unfold the particulars of a remarkable scheme. 'We should have a vast system of vaults,' he explained, . . . Each coffin would have a number at its foot, and catalogues would be issued giving the names of the occupants, for instance, 'Henry Jones, 241.' Above the vaults would be a suite of elegant reception rooms, into which visitors would be invited. They could sit down and call for, say 'No. 241.' An attendant would go down stairs, slide the casket indicated up on to a little barrow, come back again and leave it with them as long as they liked. They could look at it, have it taken to its shelf when they were through and return home.'"

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John Nelson's stereoscopic photograph on a postcard depicted a funeral casket with a woman's portrait. NSHS RG3542-43-1

(October 2010)



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