Coffin Plates on Ancestors At Rest

At Rest coffin plate from my collection.

Coffin plates are adornments that were attached to or placed in the coffin for the duration of the funeral service. Originally the plate would have been buried with the deceased but during the late 19th century the practice of keeping them as mementos became popular. Overlooked as a valuable resource they often contain information like name, age and death date of the deceased. Brian L. Massey of Ancestors At Rest, realizing their genealogical potential, has been collecting, and indexing coffin plates online. I had the opportunity to Interview Brian about coffin plates.

How did you get started as a coffin plate collector? 

I grew up with a coffin plate in the house that had been passed down through the family. It was the coffin plate of my mother's aunt Helena who died at the age of 2. My mother was named after her and so she was given the coffin plate as a family memento.

It was always sitting out on a shelf so it didn't seem odd or unusual to me. Then one day in an antique shop I noticed another one. It wasn't much money and so I impulsively bought it.

When my mom found out I had bought one, she gave me the family coffin plate of little Helena. I next researched the woman of the coffin plate I'd purchased and found out quite a bit about her. Then not long later I spotted another coffin plate in an antique shop and so I bought it too.

My wife and I are avid genealogists and antique hunters, and we joke that if we have 3 of an item, it's a new collection. I now had 3 coffin plates so I had the start of a collection! Then I started spotting them everywhere I went. I now have somewhere between 400 and 500 coffin plates in my collection. I had to put them away during renovations so don't have an exact count.

What about collecting them do you enjoy the most?

The sense of history. I read the names and try to research the person (and their family) and it's almost like having some contact with that period of time.

I have two that are very special - both are for Elgie family members. I would part with them last but my favourite are the three large ones from England which are for three Manly family members. They are called breast plates and are quite large compared to N. American coffin plates. These Manly plates were removed with the family's permission upon the deconsecration of the church and clearing of crypts etc. The two from 1875 are in classic Gothic shield style are professionally manufactured by Ingali Parson while the 1893 piece is heavily influenced by Arts & Crafts movement but has no makers mark. All three plates are brass with hand engraved lettering.

Could you share with us a story in which your coffin plate index has helped someone. 

I've had several people write to me over the years and express their gratitude for putting a coffin plate online that was of an ancestor but I don't recall the details!

Symbolism plays a major role in memorial, which symbols have you noticed are commonly used on coffin plates? 

The Catholic ones use the letters IHS. a lot. These are the first three letters of the word Jesus in Greek. Often Jesus on the Cross is with the letters. Catholic plates tend to have more symbolism than non-Catholic plates. Often the symbols used are the same as those used on tombstones such as doves, ships' anchors, lambs, willow trees etc. I especially like the ones that show something related to military history or a fraternal order.

Machine Made coffin plate from my collection.
Francis X. Stadelman
Died Jan 26-1904
Aged 5 yrs 6 Month's

Can you tell me a bit about the different techniques and metals used to make them?

They are commonly made out of tin, pewter, brass or lead (any soft metal that won't rust). Many early ones were simply cut out of a sheet of tin by a local metalworker. Later, just prior to the Civil War, coffin plates start appearing that are machine made. These are mass-produced and stamped out of a machine. At about this time they started electroplating them with silver.

Are certain types more difficult to collect than others? 

Yes - the English breastplates are very difficult to find as they were never intended to be removed. They were buried with the deceased. Also any Civil War embellished coffin plates are very expensive. Fraternal order plates can often be more money too.

When purchasing coffin plates what information should one gather from the merchant?

I always ask if they know where the coffin plate came from - so for example if it was an estate sale I can get a better idea of who the person might have been.

As an experienced collector in this field what advice would you give a beginner? 

Once you get past the late 1850s into the industrial manufactured coffin plates, it's important to not get caught up in collector fever. You can easily pay too much but you need to remember that you will almost certainly see that design again. Most coffin plates are not worth more than $50.00 to $75.00 each. There has to be something very special or unique about the plate for it to be worth more money (for example a famous person, a Civil War soldier, a large English breastplate) It's important to note the condition of the plate and the quality of the engraving. Engravers' skill levels varied tremendously so you might see plates that look like the words were scratched in with a nail and then those that are obviously very fine and skilled workmanship.

Thank you, Brian, for sharing your knowledge on Coffin Plates with us. To learn more about coffin plates, and free death records check out Ancestors At Rest.

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