Not all people can afford a nice casket. For those without funds or family, the county would bury a body in a simple pine box. The costs were well documented back in the day. In 1885 the Cook County undertaker stated that his largest annual budget item was $404.03 for the lumber to build simple pine coffins. He spent an additional $19.50 on “nails, tacks, screws etc.” as well as $4.45 on muslin trimmings “at 10 cents per yard”. For the year ending in August of 1885, the County undertaker buried 990 souls in Cook County Cemetery at a cost calculated at only 43 cents per casket. In addition, he had a salaried coffinmaker at $360 per year ($30 per month) which resulted in a total cost to Cook County of only 79 cents per casket for materials and labor .
Read on for more about the pine casket, but also Chicago’s huge Lumber District that provided the wood, and their immense fire of 1894, second only in size to the Great Chicago Fire.
Lumber and Chicago went very well together before 1871. Chicago was built of largely of wood. 14,000 worker’s cottages and frame buildings fueled the great Chicago Fire. Chicago was perfectly situated on Lake Michigan to receive timber by ship from forests in northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Most was used in the growing city, but some was sent by railroad cars to the Midwest and beyond. Before and after the fire, the city there was a vast Lumber District where over forty lumber yards and planing mills supplied building materials for house construction and furniture and yes, caskets. (The old word coffin or “case” had fallen into disuse as sounding too brutal).
The pine box with the wood from the lumber district is most identified with terribly sad burials. For many decades the county buried the indigent, unidentified and the unclaimed souls in Cook County Cemetery at Dunning, then later its successor Cook County Cemetery at Oak Forest, and most recently in commercial cemeteries by annual contract.
in the late 1800’s, those not buried by the county, families had a much better choice of caskets. There were inexpensive pine or hardwood caskets all the way up to fancy and pricey metallic caskets manufactured by several companies in Chicago. . The cheapest was known as the $25 stained pine model called the “hospital”. A red cedar covered model with fine black broadcloth sold from $75 and up. Other woods include high-priced hardwoods, mahogany, chestnut, walnut, teakwood or oak.
For the wealthy there was the 450 pound casket of metallic or stone, some lined with an airtight copper shell and trimmed with handles of solid silver.
Back in the day, storefront undertakers were also carpenters or furniture makers, building wood caskets and burying the dead as a second business.
Wood for the caskets was plentiful and cheap. Lumber Street on Chicago’s South Branch of the Chicago River was the epicenter of the lumber trade providing Chicago with the ability to grow quickly. The lumber business began in 1833, and was a huge industry alongside grain and meatpacking.
Beginning in 1859, a series of canals excavated by the South Branch Dock Company, extending from the river to Twenty-Second Street, affording Great Lakes schooners to dock, as many as 200 in one day, bringing timber from the dense forests of northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Huge quantities of lumber were needed to build the barns, fences, cottages and businesses of early Chicago. Early on, the dock lots in the Lumber District adjoined the canals and each had street access and track connecting with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. The lumber fueled Chicago’s growth, but much finished lumber was distributed westward via the Illinois & Michigan Canal. Later, as the northern forests were almost depleted, the leading companies in the Lumber District turned to southern supplies of yellow pine brought in by rail.
Huge fires in the lumber district were commonplace. One large fire in 1881, another in 1884 sparked from a passing locomotive consumed $400,000 in lumber (millions in today’s dollars). And the worst was in 1894 when three million dollars worth of property were lost in an area bounded by Ashland Avenue on the East, the south branch of the Chicago River on the South, Blue Island Avenue on the North, and Robey Street (now Damen) on the West. Many firemen were were terribly injured. The Assistant Fire Marshal was blown off the fireboat Geyser into the river.
The Geyser was a steam powered specifically designed fireboat built 1886 later renamed the Denis J. Swenie.
Edward Hines Lumber Company one of the largest companies who acquired big tracts of standing timber, built rail lines for hauling logs, acquired sawmills in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and leased timber-cutting permits in Canada. One joint venture between Hines and Weyerhauser that employed 2,800 men and 900 horses to cut and process timber in Canada and northern Minnesota through the late 1920s. Another venture was a 67,400-acre tract in a national forest near Burns, Oregon where Hines built an adjacent company town, the City of Hines. The elder Edward Hines died December 1, 1931 and was buried in Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Evanston.
So the lumber district served not only Chicago’s construction but coffin makers as well.
Today there is a trend to simpler less expensive caskets and are also environmentally friendly. Special versions are made for the orthodox Jewish sourced from sustainable forests and built without nails or metal hardware. Simpler yet are newer green burials where no expensive casket is required and the body is buried with minimum intervention.
Regardless of economic position, rich or poor, whether a person is buried in either an expensive casket or a pine box is much less important than the life story of the person who has died. Everyone has had a story worth remembering. All those who we bury are deserving of our respect and our prayers.