Updated: Oct 24
Just about every time I list a casket or coffin plate for sale, I get questions from people wondering where the hell it came from and how I got it. Some people are downright outraged: "What graveyard did this come from? Why is this not with the family?! It BELONGS with the family. YOU shouldn't have it!"
Thanks to the "oddities" trend, antique mourning and funeral paraphernalia have been fairly popular on the market for the last decade, with many sellers either specializing in this subject or just looking to hop on the bandwagon. As such, I'm surprised that so many customers are still in the dark about what casket and coffin plates are and where they come from. The acquisition and restoration of a very special new memorial for my collection seemed like as good a time as any to set the record straight.
I can't believe I have to spell this out, but the plates and ornaments you see for sale, in museums, and in private collections were not dug up from cemeteries. There are easier ways to make money than digging up graves, first of all- this isn't a Burke & Hare adventure. More to the point, most coffin and casket plates never made it into the ground in the first place. Coffin plates have been used as far back as the 17th century, and at that time they were reserved for only the wealthiest people. Following the industrial revolution, coffin plates were made so inexpensively that by the mid-19th century, just about every family could afford to include one in their loved one's funeral services. They were made in a variety metals and designs including lead, pewter, silver, brass, copper, and tin. Many plates were plain, and the engraving was done by the funeral home, a metalworker or blacksmith, or a jeweler. The quality of the engraving varied wildly depending on the talent of the artisans in the community and, like the material chosen, the means of the family. Hand-engraved casket plates with beautiful cursive script are always my favorites, like this example previously sold at the shop.
As coffin plates became more and more popular, it became common practice to remove them before the coffin went in the ground, and to keep them as mementos. Very frequently they were never attached to the coffin at all, but displayed beside the coffin as part of the funeral display, as shown in this memorial cabinet card.
Source: Ancestors at Rest.
These decorative ornaments can be found both as stand-alone pieces or inside larger memorials, along with things like photos, hair, flowers, funeral cards, and memorial prints. Many of my friends, colleagues, and customers have large collections of coffin plates, and it's easy to see why! They are small, highly decorative, and inexpensive to collect. Though I've noticed about a 20% uptick in asking prices lately, most individual coffin plates and ornaments can be acquired for less than $100. Framed memorial displays can run anywhere from $150-$500, depending on what's inside. Unlike most collectors, who are focused on accumulating huge collections, I keep relatively little for myself. You might be surprised to learn that in all these years of buying and selling, I have only ever retained ONE casket plate. But oh, what an astonishing beauty it is.
I call it my "One True Casket Plate," and it is the best and most beautiful example I've ever seen. Hats off to my colleague Josh of Angry Beard Antiques for uniting me with this incredible piece! I am a woman notoriously difficult to extract money from and even more difficult to impress, but this casket plate stopped me dead in my tracks. It's extremely rare to find one this elaborately engraved. One of my customers is an archaeologist who has spent many years compiling a database of casket and coffin plate designs, and he informed me that he has only ever seen 7 coffin plates in this style, all dating from 1859-1865. The motifs of weeping willows, urns, and angels resting upon a tombstone are the very same as the mid-Victorian memorial cards that I love to collect- the black and white ones, finely die-cut and embossed.
Black and white die-cut and embossed memorial card from my collection.
I had just finished explaining to a friend that I'll never need to buy another coffin plate ever again, when along came this extraordinary piece the very next day:
At 28" tall, this is an unusually large and impressive memorial, but bitterly sad: It contains not one, but 3 different casket plates, each for an infant from the same family:
Roza C. Mello, died March 4th, 1906 at 8 months.
Frank Mello, died May 28th, 1908 at 4 months.
Mary E. Mello, died August 3rd, 1911 at 1 Year.
The shadowbox also contains two cross-shaped coffin ornaments, two photos of the infants (one post mortem), and two sets of tiny coffin-handles. The top set of handles are wrapped in white silk, while the bottom set features the lamb, a motif in memorial art and design that represents the death of a child. None of these individual pieces is particularly special or rare. In fact, if I saw these caskets plates out on the field by themselves, I wouldn't even be tempted to keep them. However, to find a memorial with THIS many components, honoring 3 different individuals is a very rare thing indeed.
When I stumbled upon this extraordinary piece at the fleamarket last month, it was in pretty rough shape. Here's the before pic:
Yikes, right? It must have lain untouched in a barn, basement, or attic for many years, because it was so heavily caked in dirt, grime, and mouse turds, you could barely see the contents inside. Several of the pieces had come loose and were floating around the box. But dirt and grime are part of this business, and I knew I could restore this outstanding memorial to its former glory. After a very thorough wash with Windex and Murphy's Oil Soap, I removed the wire and looked around the back for the fasteners that hold the shadowbox together.
I got lucky: Despite the many nails holding the layers of this piece together, the back half of the shadowbox attaches with just four screws, two on each side, and they were very easy to remove. Some shadowboxes are nailed shut, and those are much harder to open.
Here's what it looked like fully open. As you can see, most of the dirt was on the outside of the glass, another stroke of good luck. There was some dust inside, of course. I keep a set of makeup brushes for cleaning and restoration projects: They are inexpensive to buy, and gentle enough to use on fragile pieces. I prefer not to use canned air on paper, but it DID come in handy for removing the dust from the silk lining, which is stapled and glued to the interior of the side with the glass. Silk this old is usually extremely brittle and prone to shattering, so the less handling the better.
CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!
I could tell from the outline above the metal crucifix, where the paper had darkened, that another cross-shaped ornament had fallen off and was floating around somewhere inside: I found it at the bottom, hidden in the folds of the silk lining. All that was left was to secure the ornaments and plates back in place and reposition the cards. I elected to remove some of them to make the piece less crowded.
I must say, it's a little strange to see turn of the century calling cards and faux orange blossoms in this piece. While it's common to find flowers in any memorial- dried flowers, wax flowers, cloth flowers, and especially preserved flowers from the wake or funeral- orange blossoms are usually associated with wedding ceremonies. In fact, this is likely the mother's own wedding garland. Perhaps she wanted to include mementos of happier times among all these others which, to me, scream sadness. The piece is heavy, both literally and figuratively. I can't even imagine losing 3 infants in just 5 years... Which brings me back around to the question I am so often asked: Why are these pieces not with the family?
Well, how does ANYTHING end up on the resale market? Because at some point, either there were no more descendants to inherit these things, or because someone decided they didn't want them. This is especially true of things like hairwork and memorials, which at one time were commonplace and even fashionable, but due to shifts in cultural attitudes are now considered "morbid" and unappealing by many. To me, these things are precious. I love antiques that have a history and tell a story, and I like to fancy I rescue these unwanted things from oblivion and find them loving homes.