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A sarcophagus has traditionally been a stone coffin, typically adorned with a sculpture or inscription, which is particularly associated with the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Rome and Greece. These days, the materials vary:

Kim Jong-il’s bier was placed in the mausoleum yesterday where the embalmed body of founding father Kim II-sung is displayed in a glass sarcophagus.

The Irish Times, 21 Dec. 2011.

This sounds innocuous enough until you start to explore its word origins, when it takes on the aspect of a third-rate horror story. It is from Greek sark–, flesh, plus –phagos, eating. Flesh-eating stone?

The first reference in English to the word is from a translation of the works of the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, who said that the Greeks believed that a type of limestone quarried from an area near Troy would dissolve flesh and so was suitable for making coffins. Pliny is not the most reliable of reporters (he also mentioned dog-headed people and elephants who wrote Greek) and it’s more probable that the Greek name was a figurative reference to the speed by which the bodies of those interred in porous limestone coffins decayed to bones.

Page created 11 Nov. 2000

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Last modified: 11 November 2000.