Editor’s note: From time to time, we at CFSA receive interesting questions from the general public about caskets. Although many of the questions can be answered from information we have on our CFSAA.org website, the really tough ones are referred to former CFSA Board member Mike Beardsley (Thacker Caskets, previously Marsellus Casket Company) who we refer to as the “CFSA Historian.” Mike chaired our 100th Anniversary Committee in 2013, and he compiled nearly all of the contents of the Centennial Celebration book “100 Years of Service.” Here is a fascinating excerpt of Mike’s research and recent reply to a South Dakota museum volunteer who asked about “ice caskets” from the late 1800’s. And who knew the relationship of “icing someone” to sports? In Mike’s words…
It’s hard to say who patented the first ice casket. Disbrow & Van Cleve submitted patents in 1870 and 1871. John Gravenstine also submitted a patent for his ice casket in 1871. Somehow all of them got approved even though they seemed pretty similar to me. These ice caskets proved pretty darn popular, and they had a surprisingly long life span…nearly 30 years, which is an eternity in the casket industry. It wasn’t long before other casket makers jumped on the idea. J. C. Taylor in New York made their “celebrated” ice casket (see advertisement). As late as 1893, they turned the production of their ice caskets over to the Hornthal Company in New York. Hornthal was a large manufacturer of caskets at that time.
Embalming was still in its infancy in the early days of ice caskets. While it was accepted, embalming was out of the price reach of most families. Also, skilled embalmers were hard to find outside of large cities.
Ice was the next best thing if you wanted to keep your loved one around for several days while family members made long treks by train or wagon to come to the services. Eventually, the cost of embalming came down and the service was more readily available as embalming fluid companies opened their own “Funeral Directing Colleges” to promote their fluids. This signaled the end of the ice coffin era.
It’s kind of funny to look at these early ads and see the beginnings of funeral advertising. The 1876 Disbrow & Van Cleve ad mentioned their ice casket as the “Centennial” Preserver. Clever tie in. Their early preservers were “felt lined”. By 1881 Disbrow was gone. Van Cleve now touted that his ice caskets were lined with asphaltum instead of felt. This petroleum-based, tar-like material is found seeping in the Gulf of Mexico and was used commonly by Native Americans as a glue, a caulk, a water proofing coating, etc. Van Cleve claimed that his asphaltum did everything from eliminating odors to disinfecting the casket and reducing the sweating on the outside of the caskets from the ice. He proudly proclaimed this version his “deodorized” corpse preserver. Perhaps to counter the ads from competitor J. C Taylor and others.
Here are a couple of more human interest aspects of ice caskets… When I first started at Marsellus Casket Company, the “old timers” would tell stories about how children became traumatized by the water dripping from the ice storage compartment into the ice casket’s zinc pans. Of course, they imagined that they were hearing the blood of the deceased leaking out of the body. Since most viewings at that time were held in the family home, the body stayed in place overnight and, in the quiet, I suppose one could hear the melting ice dripping. Had to be a bit creepy.
It was common for casket companies to rent home viewing materials to funeral directors like velvet backdrops, chairs, torchieres, kneelers, biers, register stands, etc. We had many, many sets of rental equipment left over in storage still into the 1990’s, and this inventory included several old ice caskets left in our stock. That makes me think that Marsellus may have also rented ice caskets back in the day (Marsellus opened in 1872). I need more research to verify that. Suffice to say, our delivery people would have had contact with the family when delivering and retrieving the funeral viewing supplies at the home and likely heard the stories of the frightened children that way.
Secondly, the American underworld slang term to “ice someone” – meaning to kill them – harkens back to the use of ice caskets. The deceased was put “on ice” to slow down putrification. Some referred to it as “chilling the corpse”. Eugene O’Neil’s book “The Iceman Cometh” refers to death being nearby. This slang morphed into the sports world, where to “ice” someone means to delay their performance in hopes of failure. So, when you see a coach call time out before a crucial free throw during the NCAA basketball tournament, you will know the origin of this term…the use of ice and ice caskets by Funeral Directors so many years ago.