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Michael Jackson and the unfortunate wrong ''c'' word -- ''casket''

Michael Jackson, funeral, casket, coffin, Harrison Funk The unctuous solemnity of some of the television coverage of the Michael Jackson funeral made me want to hurry and shower off the sentiment, metaphorically, with a re-read of Jessica Mitford's master work on the American funeral industry, ''The American Way of Death.''

She hammered the business for opaque, high-pressure, guilt-trip-inducing practices (reminiscent of the ''ups'' and ''extras'' that car dealerships used to be accused of pitching mercilessly) that turned the sendoff for the dear departed from the modest and intimate death ritual of home and family into an expensive, all-the-trimmings, hands-off proposition -- and for sanitizing the language of death, as if dying were nothing more than another lifestyle choice. Where Mitford's countryman Evelyn Waugh found humor in California's lavish and elaborate cemeteries and said as much in his novel ''The Loved One,'' Mitford was appalled by the costly excesses.

Annoyingly, some of the funeral jargon -- ''funeral director'' for ''undertaker,'' ''floral tribute'' for ''flowers'' -- has been adopted by journalists. Chief among these is ''casket," a fussy word that really describes a small, ornate box for jewelry or other valuable objects, instead of the plain, somber, and altogether proper word ''coffin.''

So it was during Jackson's funeral that I found myself muttering ''coffin'' ... ''coffin'' ... every time some TV talking head said ''casket.'' I wonder whether the people around me thought I was mumbling a prayer. I guess that in a way I was: ''Please, stop saying 'casket.' "


Handout photo of Michael Jackson's casket coffin provided by Harrison Funk and The Jackson Family. Credit: EPA.

-- Patt Morrison

Comments () | Archives (42)

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Why does it matter? I don't care about the word. I care about the man inside the word, casket. This kind of anal drivel is ridiculous.

Sad Reader

That's all you could think about? How sad for you.


Why did you even watch? If it really bothered you that much you have the power to change the channel. Next time do that and you won't have to hear anything you CHOOSE not to hear or are you one of those gawkers that had to watch for some twisted reason? CASKET CASKET CASKET! get a life!


Hey I learnt more from the comment which introduced me to "anal drivel" than your anal drivel of article!So I guess just to learn that phrase was worth my while. Good job commentator! I guess when the writer is like this it is definitely going to be the commentators that will win :)

Some Guy

Thanks for the laugh. "The best in Southern California opinion journalism." Hahahahaha, yeah right -- this article is awful.


I don't think that this is the the most important thing that you should be focusing on. In fact I think they were being more appropriate by using those words instead of coffin, because it made the people who were really saddened by Jackson's death a little better. I think those people would have been really disturbed by the way you have acted. Give Michael Jackson some respect, he may have made some bad choices but he has given us so much in terms of music, dance, and ideas on helping the world.


Sigh. As usual, people: missing the point.


I can't believe this is an article. How stupid.


Amusingly enough, I concur with you on this, Patt. The language of death has indeed been sanitised and made palatable for the masses and highly profitable for the various sub-sections of the funeral industry; the price of a headstone is horrendous. Perhaps, with our heads bowed, we'll pray for the day when "funeral insurance" won't be needed, and one could get away with a modest, personal burial - as it once was.


MJ Has Always Been So Cute.You Will Always Be Remembered And In Everyone's Hearts.
You'Re In A Better Place Now.


Specificity in word usage is not drivel nor is it 'anal'. Words and how they are used should matter. Their intrinsic power changes cultures and has been doing so for millennia and not necessarily for the better. The real ' drivel' in this case, was all the hype surrounding this man's demise.


- burial chamber, catacomb,charnel house, crypt, sepulcher, vault, catafalque, crate, funerary box, pall, pine box, pine drape, sarcophagus, tomb, box for dead person...Hopefully the LA Times will use better judgement, when posting an article, waste of time reading this one!
Signed-LA Times Reader


That's it? The talking heads said casket rather than coffin? Talk about making a pointless point.

Dar Unknown

I must agree that this is ridiculous. Who really cares if it's called a coffin or a casket? If you had done your homework you'd have found that the Webster dictionary says they are one in the same. In fact, it defines a casket as a fancy coffin. And who cares how expensive it is? The estate is footing the bills. The man gave 300 million to charities. He deserves a befitting resting place. He is interred in one of the most secure cemeteries in America to ensure the protection of his casket and body and to thwart monumental crowds of fans and spectators. I think he deserves some peace at last. Or would you like to debate the usage of terms such as "funeral" versus "memorial" or ""burial" versus "resting place"? Give us a break and write something worthwhile such as an article on the person in the casket? So I say to you, "please, please, please stop writing such gibberish".


Our culture not showing regarding for words is how we are diminishing our language, word by word. The traditions of past are gone.

Casket may be today's terminology but I thought it was very interesting to know what the word "casket" really mean.

Great article.


Whoops... " Our culture not showing regarding for words" should be...

"Our culture not showing regard* for words..."


How silly. Casket...coffin...what's the difference. You're making a mountain out of a mole hill because you--for some reason you failed to state--like the word coffin better. I can't believe you took up space to state your preference for a six letter word for a box that holds a dead person other than the six letter word that was used. Also, "expensive" is relative but how could you be expected to know that?


I feel like I'm not the only one who thought about that. I'm from Mexico City and unfortunately this is the first time I hear the word "casket" instead of "coffin". During my English classes, teachers said to us that the correct word is "coffin". Here in Mexico we use the word "ata├║d" (equal to coffin) and... by the other hand, with a little sense of humor, we use the word "estuche" (maybe is the corresponding word to "casket"), but we use it as if we were saying "put the necklace on the casket", "take the violin and, oh! Don't forget its casket".

However, I think this is a bad time... or maybe is not the ocassion. I'm also a huge fan of Michael and right now, still feeling bad that he's not here anymore.

Sharon Mills

I think both "c" words are wrong. There is another "c" word. Cremation. It is my belief that Michael Jackson was "cremated". In a documentary he mentioned that he did not want to be buried.

I think his family honored his wishes and he was cremated. The "show" is for the media and celebrity seekers.

Michael would want to be in all those special places that mattered to him.


Aren't there any better issues to write about than the "C", I suppose this is the last item to be wrung out of Michael Jackson - look everything have been written - this is becoming ridiculous.


Pathetic Article; I repeat what someone else said...
"Is this all you could think about!!? The casket!!


Good bye King of Pop...
I love you...
You always in my heart...


You're kidding.... You mean, that's all you could think was about a word??? I wish I was there instead of you. With all my prayers to him :(

Donna Jones

I, too, had been confused by the two words 'coffin' and 'casket'. A cemetary representative told me that 'coffin' refers to the old odd-shaped burial box that you see in westerns...narrow at the head and foot, wide around the shoulders. A 'casket' is the modern version of the burial box which is completely rectangular. If this is correct, then the announcers discussing MJ's burial box as a casket were correct.

But in any case, we have lost an extremely talented artist way too early and should mourn that fact, regardless of burial box wording.


I can appreciate how you feel, Pat. And, Mitford has a point. But, even the Bible (which I like a lot) uses the word sleep to soften the sting of death. Casket is not such a bad word. But, more than that, funerals are for the living and we really have no rights or say in the matter. What appalls me is the uninformed journalists who make comment without an understanding. They just don't get it.

Randy L.  Goldy

Pat -
The word coffin refers to a six or eight sided, anthropoidal shaped container, where a casket is 4 sided. Coffins are still commonly used in the Jewish faith as well as many European cultures. American culture mostly use the the four sided CASKET.

Undertaker is an out-dated term used to describe the details of person, early on in America who built caskets, provided local ambulance services, dug graves, plus every thing the modern FUNERAL DIRECTOR does today.

The modern funeral director is a highly trained, educated professional who acts a facilitator, event planner, certified celebrant and helpful guide in planning a meaningful ceremony when death occurs.

I often find that those who possess the views that were touted in your article, as well as those as the late Ms. Mitford, often have never had the experience of getting to know a modern funeral professional or have their own issues and fears about death and dying.

Why is that we would lavishly gather to celebrate as a culture births, marriages, birthdays and anniversaries and leave the ceremony and celebration of death out of the very natural life process?

I believe everyone has the very personal right to memorialize anyone in any way they see fit. Michael Jackson's funeral and casket was a very appropriate reflection of a life that celebrated excess, grandeur, charisma and success. I am personally glad that his family saw fit to give him the send off that he very well deserved.

Randy L. Goldy


Sorry, but you're wrong about the use of the word "casket." Perhaps it's a regional distinction, but I grew up in North Carolina and Alabama in the 50s and 60s, and we always used the term "casket." And the undertaker was not referred to as such; rather, he was Mr. Smith, of the funeral home. It was tasteless to use that term.

MJ Fan

I agree - who really cares? But just so you know, lady, the man inside that "casket" was VERY VALUABLE - a kind, loving soul who only wanted to help the world...so I believe the term was more than appropriate....At any rate, can't we just leave the poor man alone now? Honestly, I can't think of any other celebrity we would be having a casket/coffin discussion about.....


If "Casket" is the word for a box for valuble things, then it is right. Because the man inside in that casket is a diamond which can not be valued.


well your a sad person for thinking about that while this great man was getting buried. r.i.p. angel we miss you so much. my heart is still hurting.


What a waste of money the funeral was! The grandiosity of the Jackson family is rather pathetic. How they love the spotlight. Was a procession of 26 cars from Encino really necessary? And the "Reverend" Al Sharpton in a white Rolls Royce~ how comical!!


Patt, take a walk! And while doing so, stop by Cambridge University (UK) where the new thing is a language training on "New words in the English language".
As for Michael Jackson, let the man go in dignity and be thankful for all those wonderful tunes.
Can't newspapers or media find something else to talk about but locker-room gossip?


Does it really matter what the jargon was? This is the silliest thing I've read regarding this mans funeral. Is that the right word, funeral. I have an old aunt who uses the term "put away". He was put away so nicely. Either way the man is gone from us forever. I will miss him.

Carol T. from Burbank

The English language has a way of sanitizing itself with euphemisms. Every once in a while, someone like Patt Morrison or Lake Superior State University comes around to shake us into reality. As Morrison reported, these mortuary euphemisms were found effective in motivating grieving relatives to open their pocket books. My mother, who was a church secretary, urged me to read The American Way of Death when I was a teenager.


You must have little life to concentrate on the word Csket over Coffin and yes its 2009 and the word Casket is more applicable.


A "coffin" is that familiar image of a "casket" that you see in cartoons, such as those about vampires. "Caskets" in real life do not look like that, they are rectangular and do not become more narrow at the feet. The word "casket" is right; coffin is just that superficial drawing used in cartoons.

yvonne lynn annakin

i cannot understand why the media could not respect the wishes of michaels jackson's family; for goodness sake they gave a memorial service for the fans! they also allowed a certain amount of coverage of the funeral, in the hope that they could have at least a part of it in private. can you all imagine losing someone you love and having you heartbreaak and utter desolation in grief plastered all over the television screens. they have a right to cry withoout beoing observed llike zoo animals.. it makes me feel sick that they weren't allowed the most basic of digified mourning... shame on all you media people with helicopters hovering like vultures over what should have been a private and personal ceremony.

Steve Durgin

Wait, make that a "gold plated" coffin!

It was the only "family and friends only" private affair with a jib camera.

judas o

well that was a waste of 5 minutes. thanks!

i'm praying you're not getting paid for this crap.

Crystal Barefield

i like that casket solid gold do you know what people would do if they knew that he was burried in a slof gold casket? that is a solid gold casket that is like worth like over 1,000 thousand dollars...but yea i just stop by to show m.j some love R.I.P baby


The one lady that talked to a Cemetery worker has the correct answer. We (in the business) have always referred to a coffin as a "toe pincher" because of it's shape - wide at the elbows - narrow at the head and feet . . . a casket is a rectangle. When I watch televised funerals I am always amazed that the media gets it wrong so many times. But then, no one really cares . . .

Mortuary Student

There is a big difference between between "coffins" and "caskets", using coffin to refer to a tapered hexagonal or octagonal (also considered to be anthropoidal in shape) box used for a burial and casket to refer to a rectangular burial box with a split lid used for viewing the deceased.

Therefore casket is the correct name.



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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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