Rethinking Burial: Burial Shrouds and More Ideas

Rethinking Burial: Burial Shrouds and More Ideas


Burial shrouds offer a better way to tend to the dead, according to one shroud-maker.

We hire professionals to handle our dead. They embalm the body. They put the body in an expensive sealed coffin and place that sealed coffin in a sealed cement vault. But why?

Almost 30 years ago, I found my mother’s traditional Catholic funeral to be jarring and deeply unsettling. But why?

Becoming a funeral shroud-maker was a response. It was a response to the modern American funeral industry and its exceptionally consumptive, earth- and human-unfriendly practices.

My mother’s death and her traditional funeral unsettled me and made me consider all my “whys.” Too late for her, but hopefully not for others I love, including myself. The symbology was off, the weird ultra-calm professionalism of the undertakers (no keening here, please), the massive, expensive coffin, the generic service from the priest, the sanitation of the gravesite—none of it matched my simple, earthy mother.

She venerated the Virgin Mary, not Christ. She considered herself “shanty Irish,” meaning poor. She was a farm wife and a gardener. She made do and pinched pennies all her life. A lavish funeral seemed anomalous. She had her doubts about Catholicism late in life, and none of us knew this priest. He obviously didn’t know my mother.

It all felt cattywampus. So, the research began.

Why Coffins and Vaults?

The European Catholic Church decreed that Catholics must not be buried in such a way that their bodies touched the earth. Coffins, and later vaults, were required. Those with wealth could afford caskets, funerary indulgences, and to be buried, first under church floors (most expensive), and later in approved and specially blessed graveyards.

The idea of different treatment for those who had wealth ran in parallel to the desire to remove ourselves from earthy processes. Sex, birth, death, and decomposition were perceived as unclean and unholy. This aligns with the denial of the feminine part of the cycle of life—darkness, limits, death, rebirth through decomposition, and the fertility gained by a return to the earth.

Each year the American funeral industry buries in traditional cemeteries millions of board feet of lumber, hundreds of thousands of tons of steel, and a million tons of concrete. A good estimate for how much land is used in the US for cemeteries is approximately 140,000 acres. That is the size of Zion National Park in Utah, or about 218 square miles. Most urban areas are running out of space rapidly.

Why Embalming?

The practice of embalming bodies in America came out of the Civil War. Until the need arose to transport bodies with as little decomposition as possible, embalming was thought of as a pagan Egyptian practice by most Americans. It is not necessary or required in most states, and yet is routinely done. Embalming chemicals include a variety of preservatives, sanitizing and disinfectant agents, and solvents. Embalming fluid is extremely carcinogenic and toxic to living beings. The industry uses over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid in a typical year.

Why Do We Hire Professionals to Care for Our Dead?

Until around the early 1900s, American families cared for their dead at home. They were cleaned and dressed in their best clothes, then laid out in the parlor until the body was buried. Changing funeral practices were accelerated with the wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution. It became a status symbol to be able to afford a funeral director, a fancy coffin, and a funeral service at a funeral parlor for family members. It became important that the corpse looked alive, as if sleeping. Cosmetics, cotton stuffing, glue, and embalming became standard procedure to achieve that effect.

Many modern people aren’t aware that there are few barriers to caring for your dead at home. Funeral homes, caskets, and in some states even burial in a public cemetery are not required. The average cost of a traditional American funeral is between $8,000 to $10,000. In contrast, the average green or natural funeral costs between $2,000 and $3,000.

Answering my whys led inexorably to my work as an alternative funeral ceremonialist and to my work as a crafter of funeral shrouds and cremation vessels. Procuring my certification in funeral ceremonies led to rubbing elbows with death doulas, home funeral guides, hospice chaplains, and eco-funeral advocates. I found that it was hard for folks in this line of work to locate shrouds and alternative cremation vessels for their clients. I stepped tentatively into the gap. My learning curve remains steep.

As I was studying the topic, I found myself offering a lot of education on shrouds and alternative funeral options. I attend fiber arts festivals and arts-and-crafts fairs to share my products. People often express surprise when seeing a staged shroud on a bier at my booth. Conversations about shrouds are animated and passionate.

Caring for our dead is the last physical act of love we can give them. Most of the people who have purchased a shroud from me intend to care for the body of their loved one themselves. Some people are preparing for their own future eco-funeral. Upon seeing the completed shroud that they intend to be buried or cremated in, my clients often get quite emotional.

[Read about the ancient practice of memento mori.]

I make an assortment of shrouds, which can be used for burial or cremation. They can be used for home burials or at commercial natural-burial grounds without further containment. Most cremation providers require that the body be in a cardboard container as well as in the shroud, mostly for ease of transport. There are only a few places in the country right now that allow open-fire cremation.

The shrouds I make include simple cotton muslin wraps and similar wraps sewn in linen or raw silk. The wraps are unadorned, and I like to use unbleached, natural fabrics for their creation. These simple shrouds can also be draped with additional fabrics with important symbols or colors. In some cases the secondary draping is kept and used by other family members or community members when the time comes. Incorporation of a favorite quilt, garment, or other fabric is an option. I try to keep a few simple wraps on hand for when a shroud is needed quickly.

Caring for the dead is our last physical act of love we can give them.

My main preoccupation, though, is felted woolen shrouds with needle-felted decorations. They are elegantly simple and are mostly made with two layers of felt fastened together with natural buttons or silk ribbons. The woolen shrouds are often bespoke and are decorated with symbols meaningful to the client. The wool is either hand-felted by me from New Mexican churro wool or imported from my mentor, Yuli Somme, who uses felt made in the UK for her shrouds. I keep a few woolen shrouds on hand, usually with floral designs.

All the shrouds have a slot sewn in for a body board, generally an eight- to ten-inch-wide piece of lumber about the length of the corpse. It allows for the body to be transported or lowered into a grave or cremation fire with straps. Biers can also be used for support and transport.

Recently I’ve begun making wool and leather cremation vessels inspired by Neolithic and Bronze-age burials. These vessels hold the deceased’s ash and come with a grave goods bag as well as sweet herbs and a hide to wrap the entire package in. They are then tied shut with handmade cordage.

If you are interested in an eco-funeral and using a shroud you may want to consider:

  • Is there a place that will accept your shroud nearby? Natural or green burial grounds are becoming much more common, but you may want to research what is available near you. If you live in a rural area, you may be able to legally bury yourself or family on your own land. Each state has its own rules in this regard as well as rules for the scattering of ashes.
  • Do you have the consent of your family, spouse, or friends? Will your people be willing to carry out your wishes for a natural burial or cremation? Are they willing to learn how to care for your body after death?
  • Can you care for your shroud long term if you purchase it before death? Woolen shrouds need to be stored and cared for like any woolen garment and protected from insect damage. Cotton, linen, and silk also need to be stored well for their protection over time.

My older brother Dave died about a year ago. I was his main hospice provider as he dwindled from incurable lung cancer. Such an intense episode.

For those few months, we were weirdly unconstrained by normal time and journeyed together into the past and forward into the unknowable realms of death. He died at home on the farm, in the kitchen-turned-sickroom. He took his last breaths at 11:33 am, and I know there were angels and ancestors present. With the help of the hospice nurse, my other brother Ray and I cleaned Dave’s body, finally uncoiled and relaxed from his constant pain. We dressed him in jeans and a nice sweater. We slid the simple cotton shroud I made under him, speaking kind words. I cast a blend of protective plants and salts over his body—juniper, sagebrush, lavender, pink salt, and rosebuds. Then we wrapped the shroud around him, tucking in his limbs and head, and gently tied the shroud closed with ribbons.

My brother Ray is eight years older than me, and I am 65. After we tended Dave’s body, I looked at Ray and wondered aloud: How is it that we have grown this old and Dave is the first family member we have guided out of life into death? The first one that we have tended with our own hands?

As a culture, why have we allowed this strange magic to be taken from us? Why have we accepted a broken circle, an unholy numbness?

Red rose on grave burial shroud

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