When Did Burial Vaults First Start Being Used? The History of Burial Vaults

By: Jill Darby
Thursday, January 26, 2023

On the surface, the question “When did burial vaults first start being used?” seems pretty cut-and-dried. Based on the definition that a burial vault is a container that encloses a casket to help prevent a grave from sinking, it is fair to say they originated in the United States in the latter part of the 18th century. The term “burial vault”, however, was not regularly used until the early 1900s.

It is important to know that what was considered a burial vault over 200 years ago is very different from what is considered a burial vault today. A deeper dive into history uncovers a wealth of information about a burial vault’s evolution in terms of its intended purpose, construction, and usability that is certainly worth exploring.

Original Purposes of Burial Vaults

The first rudimentary burial vaults were made of wood and often called rough boxes. In the late 1700s, the need for a more rigid form of protection to safeguard against cemetery robbery arose. Sadly, jewelry and clothing were regularly stolen from graves and resold for a profit.

Body snatching, which also took place during this time period, further contributed to the demand for a secure outer burial container. Robbers, better known as resurrectionists” or “resurrection-men’ exhumed and sold bodies to medical schools in need of cadavers for anatomical studies. There are even several documented cases of medical doctors being arrested for orchestrating this irreverent practice.

Families who could afford to do so would hire watchmen or place wired alarms in their loved one’s casket to protect against graveside robbery. In 1881, Phillip K. Clover invented a “coffin torpedo” designed to set off a lethal blast of lead balls if someone attempted to break into the casket. 

Just a few years later, a retired probate judge from Mt Vernon Ohio Thomas, N. Howell, filed a patent for a “grave torpedo” that operated similar to what is known today as a land mine. Howell’s invention would activate when a contact point disturbed by movement exploded the shell. As more and more families began purchasing actual burial vaults for their loved ones, these practices were used less frequently and eventually became obsolete.

An additional need for using some type of outer burial structure was recognized by cemetery caretakers and gravediggers who regularly witnessed the collapsing of graves. Uneven grounds made for hazardous working conditions and caused difficulties when preparing new graves.

The superstition surrounding the idea of death resulted in yet another reason to use a sturdy burial receptacle in the 1700s and 1800s. Families wanted their loved ones’ remains to be properly secured and kept safe from much-feared ghouls who were believed to roam cemetery grounds after sunset.

Early Years

Geography and a family’s financial circumstances played a key role in determining the types and styles of burial vaults used in the 18th century. Unfortunately, many families did not have the means to purchase a dignified burial vault.

Up until the late 1800s, the most common type of burial vault-like structures found in the United States were made of cemented brick or stone that lined the sides, and sometimes, bottoms of graves. They had an arched cover and were built for both single and multiple burials.

Burial vaults constructed to house multiple caskets were regularly referred to as chamber tombs. They were an affordable option and in many instances used for criminals, the poor, and victims of slavery. Those who passed away from yellow fever and other contagious diseases were also placed in communal graves, many of which lacked any form of outer burial protection.

Archaeologists and historians in the United States gained a great deal of knowledge about primitive burial vaults in 2015 after workers preparing to install a water main discovered burial chambers beneath the lower Manhattan area of New York City. One “burial vault” in particular contained two dozen caskets that were entombed in the early 1800s. It was lined with fieldstone, had a white-washed, barrel-shaped brick ceiling, and a locked wooden door. 

Strides Towards Modernization

Arguably the most unique attempt at developing a present-day burial vault can be credited to Andrew Van Bibber. In 1878 he patented a burial-safe designed specifically to prevent grave robbery. The case very much resembled a cage and was made from welded steel or wrought iron bars. It completely surrounded the casket making it nearly impossible for criminals to gain access.

In 1912, a fully enclosed, sealable metal burial vault designed to keep the casket free from water and other graveside elements was invented. It was very similar to vaults today in terms of form and functionality. Around the same time, units made from large pieces of slate which were assembled on-site made their debut and were used for a few short years in some parts of the United States.

Close to the turn of the century, six-piece concrete burial vaults started to emerge, but were quickly replaced by two-piece medal, concrete, and asphalt receptacles that were easier to handle and required less installation time.

Today’s Burial Vaults

The many advancements and improvements made to burial vaults, especially after the 1880s have shaped what the industry has come to know as a present-day burial vault. This certitude can be supported by the countless burial vault related patents that can be found on the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s website.

Today, nearly all cemeteries will require some sort of casket protection in order to maintain the safety stability of their grounds. Having been refined through the years, fully lined, concrete burial vaults are the most popular type of vault due to their unmatched tensile strength and ability to protect against the intrusion of exterior elements.

Over the last couple of decades, personalization options have taken burial vaults to the next level. From nameplates and custom paint colors to decorative handles and cover emblems, the possibilities are endless. At Trigard, we believe that a burial vault provides meaningful aesthetics that can generate positive, long-lasting memories and encourages healthy healing. In some regard, the burial vault can be viewed as the final gift bestowed upon a loved one. 

A Long Answer to a Short Question

Burial vaults have come a long way and are needed for much more than protection against grave robbery and suspected ghouls. Not only must a modern burial vault secure a casket’s investment, it also needs to be strong enough to support the weight of the earth and the daily use of heavy cemetery equipment.

If you were looking for a quick answer to the short question, “When did burial vaults start being used?”, you certainly got more than you bargained for. However, I hope that you gained some insight as to what constituted a burial vault years ago and the path it took to get where it is today. Perhaps you even learned some interesting facts that you can share with your colleagues along the way.

Trigard’s History

Trigard is a family owned and operated business since 1967. Led by the fourth generation of Darby’s, serving families is what we do best. Our family and staff are dedicated to helping those who have lost a loved one. We do this by ensuring peace of mind with burial vaults and urn vaults that protect caskets and urns






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