This is such a strange word, and its history and meaning make it that much stranger. I love these old words that get passed down and turned into something shorter, and usually, less inspiring. Let us all take in the glory of ancient words and their meanings.
c. 1600, “type of stone used for coffins,” from Latin sarcophagus, from Greek sarkophagos “limestone used for coffins,” literally “flesh-eating,” in reference to the supposed action of this type of limestone (quarried near Assos in Troas, hence the Latin lapis Assius) in quickly decomposing the body, from sarx (genitive sarkos) “flesh” (see sarcasm) + phagein “to eat” (from PIE root *bhag- “to share out, apportion; to get a share”). Related: Sarcophagal.
The “stone” sense was the earliest in English; meaning “stone coffin, often with inscriptions or decorative carvings” is recorded from 1705. The Latin word, shortened in Vulgar Latin to *sarcus, is the source of French cercueil, German Sarg “coffin,” Dutch zerk “tombstone.”
pl. sar·coph·a·gi, or sar·coph·a·gus·es
A stone coffin, often inscribed or decorated with sculpture.
Origin of sarcophagus
Latin from Greek sarkophagos coffin from (lithos) sarkophagos limestone that consumed the flesh of corpses laid in it sarx sark- flesh -phagos -phagous
Word History: Sarcophagus, our term for a stone coffin located above ground, has a macabre origin befitting a macabre thing. Its ultimate source is the Greek word sarkophagos, “eating flesh, carnivorous,” a compound derived from sarx, “flesh,” and phagein, “to eat.” Sarkophagos was also used in the phrase lithos (“stone”) sarkophagos to denote a kind of limestone with caustic properties from which coffins were made in the ancient world. The Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder says that this stone was quarried near the town of Assos in the Troad and describes its remarkable properties as follows: “It is well known that the bodies of the dead placed in it will be completely consumed after forty days, except for the teeth.” The Greek term sarkophagos could also be used by itself as a noun to mean simply “coffin.” Greek sarkophagos was borrowed into Latin as sarcophagus and used in the phrase lapis (“stone”) sarcophagus to refer to the same stone as in Greek. In Latin, too, sarcophagus came to be used as a noun meaning “coffin made of any material.” The first known attestation of the word sarcophagus in English dates from 1601 and occurs in a translation of Pliny’s description of the stone. Later, sarcophagus begins to be used in English with the meaning “stone coffin,” especially in descriptions of sarcophagi from antiquity.
A sarcophagus (plural sarcophagi) is a box-like funeral receptacle for a corpse, most commonly carved in stone, and usually displayed above ground, though it may also be buried. The word “sarcophagus” comes from the Greek σάρξ sarx meaning “flesh”, and φαγεῖν phagein meaning “to eat”; hence sarcophagus means “flesh-eating”, from the phrase lithos sarkophagos (λίθος σαρκοφάγος), “flesh-eating stone”. The word also came to refer to a particular kind of limestone that was thought to rapidly facilitate the decomposition of the flesh of corpses contained within it due to the chemical properties of the limestone itself.
Sarcophagi were most often designed to remain above ground. In Ancient Egypt, a sarcophagus acted like an outer shell.
The Hagia Triada sarcophagus is a stone sarcophagus elaborately painted in fresco; one style of later Ancient Greek sarcophagus in painted pottery is seen in Klazomenian sarcophagi, produced around the Ionian Greek city of Klazomenai, where most examples were found, between 550 BC (Late Archaic) and 470 BC. They are made of coarse clay in shades of brown to pink. Added to the basin-like main sarcophagus is a broad, rectangular frame, often covered with a white slip and then painted. The huge Lycian Tomb of Payava, now in the British Museum, is a royal tomb monument of about 360 BC designed for an open-air placing, a grand example of a common Lycian style.
Ancient Roman sarcophagi—sometimes metal or plaster as well as limestone—were popular from about the reign of Trajan, and often elaborately carved, until the early Christian burial preference for interment underground, often in a limestone sepulchre, led to their falling out of favor. However, there are many important Early Christian sarcophagi from the 3rd to 4th centuries.
Most Roman examples were designed to be placed against a wall and are decorated on three of the sides only. Sarcophagi continued to be used in Christian Europe for important figures, especially rulers and leading church figures, and by the High Middle Ages often had a recumbent tomb effigy lying on the lid. More plain sarcophagi were placed in crypts, of which the most famous examples include the Habsburg Imperial Crypt in Vienna, Austria. The term tends to be less often used to describe Medieval, Renaissance, and later examples.
In the early modern period, lack of space tended to make sarcophagi impractical in churches, but chest tombs or false sarcophagi, empty and usually bottomless cases placed over an underground burial, became popular in outside locations such as cemeteries and churchyards, especially in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, where memorials were mostly not highly decorated and the extra cost of a false sarcophagus over a headstone acted as an indication of social status.