A coffin is, most commonly, a symbol for death. Its sole purpose is to serve as a container for dead people. That is why it can have a strong effect to subvert that connotation by using a coffin as a means for the hero to save his life: a symbol of death as a life saver.
The most common variation is for the hero to hide in the coffin. Maybe he's being chased by someone across a graveyard, or maybe he's illegally examining a deceased loved one when he hears their murderer approaching. This comes in two flavours: the coffin may be empty, which can have a very eerie feeling and may evoke pictures of being Buried Alive; or it may already be occupied, which can either be very squicky or Played for Laughs, with the hero apologizing for the intrusion.
Hiding oneself in a coffin or sarcophagus is not the only option covered by this trope, though. Most coffins are made of light wood, so they float on water and can thus serve as a makeshift lifeboat, and inventive heroes can find other uses for them as well.
Of course, the heroes are not the only ones who can do this. If the villain of a story uses this, the connotations may be different: After the danger is gone, they may emerge from the coffin, thus giving the impression that they are somehow connected to death.
Especially creepy when the coffin is, for one reason or another, the hero's own.
May come attached to Faking the Dead if the hero pretends to actually belong in the coffin. Compare Cramming the Coffin, where the person hiding (or, more accurately, being hidden) in the coffin is already dead. Compare also the Bodybag Trick, which uses a bodybag instead of a coffin, but can have similar symbolic effect.
- Part One of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure ends with Erina Joestar (née Pendelton) surviving the destruction of her honeymoon ship by floating in Dio Brando's bomb-proof coffin.
- G.I. Joe (IDW): Kwinn and Lighthorse smuggle Snake-Eyes across the border by hiding him a coffin inside a hearse and say they are returning a family member to be buried in his native land.
- In the Tintin album Tintin: Cigars of the Pharaoh Tintin and Professor Sarcophagus are drugged and then smuggled on board a ship inside coffins, then thrown overboard into the sea when the smugglers are nearly caught by coastal police. They manage to open the coffins and drift back to shore.
- In A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood's nameless character hides in a coffin and watches the rival gangs running the town go at each other.
- In Funeral in Berlin this is supposed to be the method by which an East German defector is to be smuggled to the west; but the whole thing is a Soviet setup to catch the ones who smuggle out defectors.
- In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword sets fire to the tomb complex Indy and Dr. Schneider are exploring for clues to the Holy Grail. The pair overturn Sir Richard's stone coffin as shelter from the flames.
- Laurel and Hardy used this in one of their first films, A-Haunting We Will Go, where they are escorting a coffin, not knowing that a criminal gang leader has hidden in it to escape the police.
- In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, towards the end of the movie, the evil sheriff shows up at McGill's cabin ready to hang McGill and his two companion protagonists (never mind that they've been pardoned by the governor), and has three gravediggers with coffins at the ready, but just then the valley floods (as part of a rural electrification program) and everybody is swept away; the protagonists pop up in the water and are able to cling to one of the coffins.
- In Once Bitten, Mark and his Love Interest hide in a coffin when the Countess and her aide are searching the house for them. It doesn't work for very long, but long enough for the love interest to very quickly relieve Mark of his virginity, rendering him unsuitable for the vampiress's tastes.
- Captain Jack Sparrow hides with a dead man in a coffin to escape from prison at the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.
- Rosewood. The hero's mother is killed by white racists attacking the black town, and the hero himself is smuggled out in her coffin.
- Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines: The Terminator carries John Connor and Kate Brewster through a hail of bullets and out of harm's way in a steel coffin.
- The Jewish refugee Rachel passes through German inspection to her new hiding place by posing as a corpse and being smuggled by a pair of sympathetic undertakers.
- Subverted at the end when the treacherous Dr. Franken tries to escape with his loot through Allied inspection by hiding in a coffin transported by a corrupt undertaker he paid off. He is intercepted by the surviving two resistance members, and suffocated by bolting the casket shut.
- In Pyramids, when Teppic rescues Ptraci from prison, he hides her in an empty sarcophagus, leaving it open a crack. The next morning, the high priest Dios comes along, spots the slightly ajar coffin, triumphantly has the guards open it, to reveal... wood shavings. Ptraci had gone out earlier to answer nature's call, and once the confused Dios had left (even checking the sarcophagus containing the king's mummy), went back into hiding.
- In Carpe Jugulum, Agnes Nitt blags her way into a castle being taken over by vampires by hiding in a coffin being ferried in by cart. The vampires' guards assume this is a delivery of bedroom furniture and do not bother to check.
- Wizards tend to attempt to cheat Death by sealing themselves into tombs surrounded by their best arsenal of wards and amulets. The usual reaction: "A bit cramped in here, isn't it?"
- In the backstory of John Dickson Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell novel The Hollow Man, this is part of the story that leads to the killer's vengeful motivation. Three brothers escaped from a prison by feigning death and allowing themselves to be Buried Alive, but the one who managed to escape from his coffin first ran away and left the other two to die. One survived and pursued him.
- Eva Luna: Elvira, a mother figure to Eva, saves up to buy a coffin to avoid being buried as an indigent. She frequently uses it as An Odd Place to Sleep to prepare herself for death. Later on, it ends up saving her from drowning during a flood.
- While not exactly a coffin, an interesting case appears in Ghost Story, when Harry Dresden seeks protection in his open grave, "gifted" to him by an old adversary. The catch is that Harry is already (mostly) dead. He's a ghost, and as a being of pure spirit is at risk of being destroyed by the light of the sun without sheltering in some sort of magical refuge. His grave fit the bill.
- If This Goes On—. A member of La Résistance mentions to the protagonist that he was hypnotised into a comatose state, then smuggled across the country in a coffin.
- In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean escapes from the convent of Petit-Picpus (which is being watched by police who suspect that he's hiding inside) in the coffin of a nun who has just died and is being taken out for burial.
- In Moby-Dick, Ishmael survives the sinking of the Pequod by clinging to the coffin intended for Queequeg.
- Invoked in Terry Pratchett's Nation, in which a ship's cook prepares for the possibility that his vessel might sink by bringing a coffin on board for himself ... and outfitting it with fresh water, fishing gear, and a small collapsible sail. In the wake of the tsunami, he's found sailing his coffin by a rescue ship.
- Justified in Pale Horse Coming. One of the characters is a coffin maker and arranged to have a load of coffins shipped to the town of Thebes in order to aid a prison escape and town evacuation.
- Justified in The Witcher: The Last Wish. Geralt hides inside a striga's stone sarcophagus both for protection and because his contract is to cure the striga, King Foltest's daughter Adda. Spending a night near a striga's coffin breaks the curse long enough for one to suppress it with various charms, and the stone lid is just handy protection. (The sequence also appears in the opening cinematic of The Witcher video game.)
- Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "Final Escape", remade under the same title in The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents, subverts this when a male prisoner (female in the remake) plans an escape using this method. The prisoner is supposed to hide in the next coffin being used, then the prison undertaker is supposed to come and dig the coffin up once the coast is clear. When the prisoner feels that they've been waiting too long, they light a match to see that they're buried with ... the undertaker.
- Breakout Kings: In "Steaks", two convicts murder an obese inmate and then hide in his coffin in order to escape.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- In "Bad Girls", Buffy hides from the Eliminati in a sarcophagus.
- In "Goodbye Iowa", when Initiative soldiers kick down the door to his crypt, Spike hides beneath a corpse in a sarcophagus. Note that vampires do not usually inhabit coffins in this universe.
- Dexter eludes the police when they raid the Trinity Killer's house (he was there to kill Trinity) by hiding in a coffin that Trinity had made himself until enough time had passed that Dexter (a member of the police department) could realistically have arrived.
- In the MacGyver episode "Deathlock", Mac uses this ploy to be carried out of East Germany (with stolen microfilm). Of course in this case the coffin is also a fully functional motorized water vehicle.
- The Sarah Jane Adventures: Galactic undertakers try to steal the Doctor's TARDIS by faking evidence of the Doctor's death so that two of his former companions (Jo Jones (nee Grant) and Sarah Jane Smith) will come to the funeral, where their memories can be harnessed to create a key to the TARDIS. The Doctor shows up and gets Jo and Sarah Jane to remember all of their adventures, overloading the memory-capturing machine which, naturally, starts counting down towards blowing up. Jo and Sarah Jane survive by hiding in the lead-lined coffin created for the Doctor.
- Joked with in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, where you save your game by going to your coffin.
- Near the end of Laura Bow 2, Laura evades the killer by hiding in a sarcophagus.
- At the end of the Tutorial Level in Remember Me, Nilin escapes La Bastille by hiding in one of the coffins meant to transport dead prisoners' bodies out.
- In Skyrim, a Dark Brotherhood-aligned Dovahkiin needs to hide inside the Night Mother's coffin when The Penitus Oculatus raze the Falkreath sanctuary.
- Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakai hid in a coffin to escape the Roman siege of Jerusalem; the coffin was carried outside the city by his followers for his "burial".