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
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,
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
Why Coffins and Vaults?
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
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.
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?
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
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
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?