Exploding coffins and illusive tappers
Although it sounds like something one would expect to encounter in a Victorian farce, exploding coffins actually became a real issue during the early Victorian era. If we are to believe the writing of men involved in the burial reform movement, such as Edwin Chadwick and John Claudius Loudon, caskets were “popping” left right and center. It were especially lead caskets which suffered from this defect.
Lead coffins had gained popularity in the early 19th century, when the body snatching trade was thriving. As many of my readers will know, men referred to as body snatchers or resurrection men, would dig up bodies which had just been interred, in order to sell these to anatomical schools where they would be dissected. Because lead coffins were hard to pull out of the grave due to their weight, and were nearly impenetrable when closed off properly, they quickly became the preferred coffin for the middle- and upper-classes who were anxious to protect the bodies of their dead beloved.
As the following quote from Edwin Chadwick’s A Supplementary Report on the results of a Special Enquiry into the Practice of Interment in Towns  shows, the great downside to these coffins was that they had the nasty habit of exploding:
I have known coffins to explode, like the report of a small gun, in the house. I was once called upon at midnight by the people, who were in great alarm, and who stated that the coffin had burst in the night, as they described it, with ‘a report like the report of a cannon’. On proceeding to the house I found in that case, which was one of dropsy, very rapid decomposition had occurred, and the lead was forced upon. Two other cases have occurred within my experience of coffins bursting in this manner. I have heard of similar cases from other undertakers. The bursting of lead coffins without noise is more frequent. Of course it is never told to the family unless they have heard it, as they would attribute the bursting to some defective construction of the coffins (Chadwick 14).
To prevent the caskets from spontaneously combusting, undertakers would take the precaution of having them tapped. For this express purpose a hole was created in the side of the coffin into which a tap might be inserted, which allowed someone to drain the bodily fluids and gasses. If this was neglected (as in the example above), combustion was almost inevitable. The explosion might occur at home, during the service or after the funeral. Chadwick writes that it was not uncommon for caskets located in vaults and mausoleums to combust, “unless they were watched and ‘tapped’” (15). This makes me wonder how many unfortunate passersby nearly got a heart attack when suddenly hearing a really loud bang, whilst passing by a family vault during his stroll along the local churchyard. If this had happened to me during nighttime, I surely would have bolted from the place.
All fun aside, when Chadwick mentions that at least some of these caskets at churchyards were being “watched and tapped” this indicates that someone was actually employed to walk around the graveyard with a container of some sort (a bucket?) and a tap to check if any of the lead coffins in the vaults needed tapping. Unfortunately, I have not come across a reference to this particular job in any of the other texts I have consulted. I would really like to discover if this person was employed by a sexton, by the family of the deceased to ensure that the coffin remained intact, if this was an extension of the service provided by the undertaker, or if this was perhaps part of the job of a gravedigger. Unfortunately, leads are painfully missing.
Whilst writing this post I became aware that this is not the only point where the identity of the tapper is shrouded in mystery. Indeed, when Chadwick mentions the tapping of the coffin in the Victorian home, he remains strangely silent on the point of which of the undertaker’s employees was charged with this macabre job. Was this the task of one particular employee, who regularly visited the houses of clients in order to check the coffins? Where all of the undertaker’s men charged with this? I cannot imagine an undertaker taking it upon himself to complete this dreadful task if he could help it.
As the era progressed, the spontaneous combustion of these coffins became of increasing concern to the Victorians, as it came to be viewed as a health hazard. As the undertaker in the first quote points out, the spontaneous combustion of lead coffins was not necessarily accompanied by sound. If it were to happen at home, the crack, which the explosion would inevitably cause, allowed all manner of bodily gasses and fluids to ooze out, causing the room in which it was located to become a den of noxious gasses. If the members of the household would not notice this soon enough, their health could be a serious jeopardy. There was also always the risk of the coffin cracking during the funeral, which cannot have been agreeable to the gravediggers. According to John Claudius Loudon, the smell was often so unbearable that the London gravediggers were “obliged to be plied constantly with rum to induce them to proceed” (4). However, as Chadwick points out, no amount of liquor could save them if they directly ingested the miasma, as this occasionally resulted in immediate death (14).
Although Chadwick extensively discusses the effects which miasma and effluvia might have on the human body if it were to accidentally be exposed to it, he strangely forgets the unfortunate coffin tapper who of necessity constantly exposed him/herself to this dangerous matter. Again, I cannot help but wonder why this person is so invisible in this text. Was the task too distasteful to be discussed in any detail, causing Chadwick to exclude him/her from the text all together? Or, was perhaps it perhaps a strategic decision? Whilst rereading the report it occurred to me that Chadwick only uses the potentially exploding coffin to illustrate the danger which the concentrated miasma and effluvia posed to those who come into contact with it. Nowhere in his report, however, does he petition for abolishing the use of lead coffins. Could it be that Chadwick did not explicitly discussed the risks to which the tapper was exposed, because it would have forced him to plea against the use of lead caskets, which might have cost him some of the support he was depending on in The House of Commons? After all, by the 1840’s the Victorians still greatly feared body snatchers and lead coffins appeared to be the only means of keeping the resurrection men at bay.
Whatever the reason may be, the illusive tapper has received very little attention in the Victorian era, and as a consequence, in our own. Do any of my readers know of any references to this task/ profession, or the person charged with it? It would definitely make for an interesting side project to discover more about this person who roamed about churchyards with a tap and a bucket of brown, nasty smelling goo.
Chadwick, Edwin. Report on the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain. A supplementary report on the results of a special inquiry into the practice of interment in towns. Made at the request of Her Majesty’s principal secretary of state for the Home department. London: W. Clowes & Sons, 1843.
Loudon, John Claudius. On the Laying Out, Planting, and Managing of Cemeteries. And on the Improvement of Churchyards. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1843.