Funerary Inscriptions on Coffins (17-18th c.)

(”Vasile Pârvan” Institute of Archaeology,  Romanian Academy, Bucharest, Romania)

Keywords: funerary customs, commemorative inscriptions, wooden coffins Transylvania

My paper investigates an unusual written source on death: the funerary inscription inside a wooden coffin.
Funerary inscriptions preserve the person’s identity, being meant for remembrance and prayer. They appear on grave markers, such as crosses, slabs or complicated funerary monuments, in different ways, recording only the name of the deceased or more and more information about the departed. This kind of commemorative inscriptions survive usually in stone, but there are also some data about the possibilities of their persistence in wooden materials.
One of the problems with the study of wooden coffins from the 17th-18th century is that very few survive. Most of them have decayed and we find only the skeletons, the nails and rarely the traces of wood on the walls of the pit or under the skeleton. Wooden coffins survive only in exceptional circumstances, depending on the acidity of the soil and on other factors.
Archaeological excavations conducted in two medieval churches from Transylvania (Saschiz and Braşov) have uncovered a series of wooden coffins in an exceptional state of preservation (despite the disappearance of the skeletons). On the inner face of the lids there were painted funerary inscriptions carrying some data about the individuals. In one case, a real epitaph was painted, spread over the whole surface of the lid, including data about the dead person, his life and his family.
What is the real meaning of this kind of funeral writings? They appear to have been deliberately buried with the dead, without having a message for the relatives or the passers-by. Their only message was intended for those who would have disturbed the grave, as we have already done. Was the message destined for the archaeologist or was the inscription meant to sustain a material presence of someone for ever, replacing the physical body?
My paper will discuss the archeological and bioarchaeological evidence of the graves and will try to answer some questions about this custom.

Relevance conference / Relevance session:
This paper offers an interdisciplinary approach to funerary customs, analysing both the material remains (bodies, wood, painting) and the memorial message.

The wooden coffins with funerary painted inscriptions inside offer an unique opportunity to explore early modern attitudes towards death.


  1. Marcu Istrate, Biserica evanghelică „Sfântul Martin” Braşov. Arheologie, arhitectură, restaurare. Catalog de expoziție / Evangelische Kirche Martinsberg Kronstadt. Archäologie, Architektur, Restaurierung. Ausstellungskatalog, Braşov 2012
  2. Marcu Istrate, Saschiz – Keisd, Ed. Academiei Române, Bucureşti, 2012