1918 coffin shortage shows need for social distancing today

Louisville City Hall, Library of Congress.

We have all learned that pandemics create economic losses, breaks in the supply chain and shortages.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, worry over hospitals having too few ventilators has contributed to school, library and restaurant closings, the cancellation of public events, mass telecommuting and calls for “social distancing.”

Although some may question the need to disrupt our lives over the coronavirus pandemic, we should take a lesson from a shortage that occurred more than a century ago.

In October 1918, during the height of the worldwide “Spanish flu” pandemic, Louisville and surrounding communities faced a lack of coffins for burying men, women and children who had died from influenza and related complications.

That flu pandemic lasted until 1920 and killed tens of millions of people across the globe. It also took the lives of more than 14,000 Kentuckians.

4th Street, Louisville. Library of Congress.

To slow the spread of the virus in 1918, communities temporarily banned public gatherings, including church services, political rallies and public funerals. Authorities also closed schools and movie theaters.

By the autumn of 1918, Kentuckians had seen their fair share of obituaries listing deaths from the flu or influenza-induced pneumonia. Both large cities and small towns suffered.

In the Bullitt County community of Lebanon Junction, for example, it was reported that seven people had died on October 20 alone. “Over 200 people are said to be down with the fearful disease and there is not sufficient help to care for them,” a reporter wrote.

Kentucky communities were overwhelmed by sickness. Shortages followed. Scarcities even included coffins needed to bury the dead.

On October 23, a headline in the Louisville Courier-Journal exclaimed that the “Coffin Supply is Exhausted.”

“The influenza epidemic has caused an unusual situation,” the newspaper explained. “Louisville, Southern Indiana and a great part of Kentucky, supplied from local coffin and casket manufactures, are depending on the day-to-day supply of coffins and caskets turned out.”

There were only a handful of local coffin manufacturers in the region, which included “a population of over 2,000,000 people.” Although there was typically “a stock of at least a thousand coffins in reserve,” the newspaper wrote, “the epidemic has caused an unprecedented demand for caskets.”

Base Hospital, Camp Zachary Taylor, Library of Congress.

Camp Zachary Taylor, a training ground for World War I soldiers located in Louisville, contributed to this need. Around September 1918, nearly 800 men had died there. This number, coupled with almost 400 deaths in Louisville, had “depleted the supply of certain coffins on hand.”

In fact, the number of flu victims across the state was so large that the lack of caskets extended into Eastern Kentucky. There, it was reported, residents had begun using homemade coffins.

J. F. Tripptett advertisement.

Some smaller communities, however, did not face the same burden. In Columbia, Kentucky, an undertaker named J. F. Tripptett advertised that he maintained “a full stock of coffins, caskets, and robes. I also keep Metallic Caskets, and Steel Boxes and two hearses. We keep extra large caskets. Prompt service night or day.”

The shortage led to some gallows humor among the staff at the Courier-Journal. “Verily man is of few days and full of trouble,” one wag noted. “He spends his life waiting in line at the bank window, in the barbershop, at the shop counter, and when death claims him he must lie in line for his casket.”

Although ink-stained reporters made jokes about the lack of coffins, this history teaches us the importance of social distancing, the closing of public places and other measures designed to halt the spread of coronavirus.

While we now experience minor shortages — some grocery store aisles have been temporarily empty, for example — these are slight inconveniences compared to what Kentuckians faced during the flu pandemic of 1918.

Remembering the reason for the coffin shortage of 1918 is a stark reminder of why social distancing and the measures taken to enforce it are so critical.

It is better to stay home and run low on bread and milk than to have losses so severe as to cause a shortage of coffins.

Stuart W. Sanders is the History Advocate for the Kentucky Historical Society.

Writes about history. Author of four books, including the new “Murder on the Ohio Belle,” published by the University Press of Kentucky.