Story of child’s coffin at Delaware County Historical Society remain a mystery

A child's coffin is on display as part of the Delaware County Historical Society's collection. Submitted photo — Delaware County Historical Society

Although the Delaware County Historical Society did not receive it until the mid-20th century, the youth coffin in its collection is representative of an earlier time.

The coffin is wooden and hexagonal in shape, similar to those used in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the 1800s, women often cleaned and prepared the body, and men either made a plain wood coffin or would get one from a carpenter. Men also dug the graves.

During that time, the body was laid out at home, and then a graveside service was also held for people to pay their respects.

By the end of the 19th century, rectangular-shaped caskets were in use, and the foundation of the funeral profession was beginning to be established.

However, some groups, such as Jews and Quakers, preferred the less ornate wooden structures to elaborate contraptions that had emerged.

Cultural factors had large influences on the burial process. The Irish would have a wake where loved ones would visit the deceased in the home for a period of days. Some, such as Buddhists and Hindis, require that bodies be cremated.

Parts of the youth coffin’s journey to DCHS remain a mystery.

Ray Imschweiler, an embalmer for Fairlamb & Sons during the 1920s, gave the coffin to Joseph Jeffries, superintendent of Chester Rural Cemetery.

Embalmers were responsible for caring for the bodies of the deceased while undertakers, later known as funeral directors, coordinated the funerals. The practice of embalming became popular after President Abraham Lincoln had been viewed by multitudes of Americans.

In 1939, Jefferies donated it to Delaware County Historical Society.

It is unknown why Imschweiler gave the coffin to Jefferies or why Jefferies gave it to DCHS. The possibilities, however, continue to be great topics of conversation.

The youth coffin is stored at the home of Delaware County Historical Society, located at 408 Avenue of the States in Chester. It is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Parking is free in the lot behind the building or across the street in the city’s municipal lot.

For more information or for ways to get involved, call 610-359-0832.

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