St. Stephen the Martyr, Patron Saint of Casket Makers

A brief profile of St. Stephen the Martyr

The stoning of Stephen
Rembrandt's depiction of the stoning of St. Stephen, painted in 1625. Photo: Public Domain

The Catholic Church venerates more than 10,000 men and women as saints so, not surprisingly, many unexpected objects, activities and even geographic areas, among numerous other things, are associated with specific patron saints. For example, St. Drogo is the patron saint of gallstones, St. Columbanus of motorcyclists, and St. Anselm of Lucca is the patron of Mantua, Italy (but not nearby Verona, apparently).

This article offers a brief profile of another Catholic saint, St. Stephen the Martyr, the patron saint of casket and coffin makers.

The Life of St. Stephen the Martyr

According to the Bible, Stephen was "a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost" whom the original 12 disciples of Jesus selected to help spread the word of God following the crucifixion of Jesus. One of seven such appointed disciples, Stephen preached and "did great wonders and miracles among the people," which helped greatly increase the number of believers and the faithful in Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, not everyone accepted Stephen's message positively and he was eventually arrested and accused of speaking "blasphemous words against Moses, and against God." Standing trial, the accusing council used "false witnesses" against Stephen, who then delivered an impassioned speech in his defense in which he concluded: "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye."

Enraged at this accusation, the council members lost all sense of reason and rushed Stephen, casting him out of the city. There, kneeling on the ground, Stephen prayed to God to forgive those surrounding him for their sins even as those people stoned him to death. Today, Stephen is considered the first martyr of the Christian Church.

St. Stephen's Connection to Caskets

Unlike Joseph of Arimathea, whose actions after the crucifixion of Jesus make it easy to understand why he is now considered the patron saint of undertakers, morticians and funeral directors, little is known about the life of Stephen other than what was recorded in the Bible, which fails to suggest the connection between the martyr and casket making.

While purely conjecture, it is quite possible that St. Stephen became the patron saint of casket and coffin makers purely linguistically, because of what happened centuries after his death. Long venerated as the first Christian martyr, people eventually celebrated this saint during the Feast of Stephen on Stephen's Day, a holy day occurring every December 26th. Our modern Christmas carol, "Good King Wenceslaus," still recalls this day: Good King Wenceslaus went out, On the Feast of Stephen, When the snow lay round about, Deep and crisp and even.

Like the good king, who braved harsh winter conditions to help those less fortunate, Christian churches and monasteries collected alms for the poor during the religious season of Lent and opened these collection boxes the day after Christmas, i.e., Stephen's Day, to distribute the funds to the less-fortunate, a practice still common today.

Interestingly, a small ornamental box or chest used to hold valuables -- such as these "Christmas boxes" -- was once called a "casket" in English, a term possibly derived from the Old North French word casse, meaning "box." Thus, St. Stephen's association with casket makers might result from the boxes/caskets used to collect alms during the season of Lent/Christmas.

"Acts 6:1-15; 7:1-60" The Bible, King James Version, American Edition. Retrieved November 04, 2015.

"St Stephen and Our Earliest 'Christmas' Feast…" by Ian Elmer, 2007. Retrieved November 05, 2015.