Americans adopted some interesting customs surrounding death in the Victorian period (1837-1901). Mortality rates were much higher than we are accustomed to now, especially for infants and children. So death was a regular part of life, so to speak.

Death was also very personal for Victorians. The body of the deceased was usually laid out in the parlor of house, often in a casket like this one. This wicker example was used only temporarily for the funeral and viewing of the body, held at home. The deceased was not buried in it; wicker caskets such as this one were used over and over.

These caskets were also known as transfer baskets, used to transport the bodies of those who died while away from home. Practically speaking, they were more lightweight and easier to carry than a coffin made of wood.

This particular casket came to the Dubuque County Historical Society from the Hoffman-Schneider Funeral Home, Iowa’s oldest continually operating funeral home, having opened in 1846 and being passed down through three generations of Hoffman men. Originally located on what is now Central Avenue, in 1939 the business moved into what was known as the Lacy Mansion on Main Street. The Schneider name was added in 1985 when Jim and Sharon Schneider purchased the business. The second location on Asbury Road was opened in 2009 as Hoffman-Schneider Kitchen Funeral Home.

Temporary wicker caskets were just one Victorian tradition surrounding death that today we might find strange. Victorians also frequently took photographs of the deceased, sometimes in poses that made them appear alive. They made jewelry and other trinkets out of the hair of deceased relatives, draped black cloths over mirrors, and even stopped their clocks at the time of death.

A Wicker Resurgence?

Wicker and woven caskets are increasing in popularity once again, this time with an eye toward eco-friendly burials. Wicker coffins today are touted as a natural and sustainable choice, made from weaving materials such as willow, rattan, seagrass, reed, bamboo, or other grasses.