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Shrouds, A Reinvented Tradition

clip_lilyShe Was Covered In Beauty

"From the very first moment I saw the body of Theresa, the deceased, wrapped in a white linen shroud, being carried to her open grave, I was overcome with awe," Thomas says.    

Officiating a funeral service was not a new role for Thomas, as he'd been a Roman Catholic priest in parish work for a dozen years.  But this particular service, taking place on a Puget Sound island cemetery hillside, struck him as something different - deeply moving, even humbling.      

The sight of Theresa's shrouded body - lying so simply, even starkly, on wooden planks stretched across a freshly dug grave - strongly affected many others present that day.    Rich dark earth, roots and stones, and a luminous green frame of clover and grass complemented the linen shroud's natural purity, with crafted folds knotted across her body, outlining the contours of her form.   

Thomas recalls:   "The mourners were invited to place their flowers in the folds of the cloth in which Theresa was shrouded."   One friend had already tucked two little teddy bears and a nosegay made by Theresa's daughter inside next to her heart.  "When they finished, she was covered in beauty and color and fragrance. Then, with great tenderness, the young men who attended her gently unfurled the straps and lowered her into the earth, and rose petals were sprinkled over her."

Certainly Thomas and most of those gathered had heard of burial shrouds-the Shroud of Turin springs to mind-but before this funeral no one had actually seen one or experienced such a ceremony.  This is because shrouds, for the most part, are not presented by the American funeral industry as a possible choice.

Shrouds Reinvented

Shrouds-also called winding-cloths or winding-sheets-have historically been long pieces of cloth made of natural fiber. After a ceremonial washing, the body is wrapped in the cloth before burial or cremation.  Shrouds are still used in the death rituals of Jews, Muslims, and Hindus.  But, for most modern grieving families, the idea of using a shroud comes from a distant past, and is not something they would consider possible today.    

This picture, however, has started to change as families seek more meaningful and natural ways to mark the passing of a loved one. Several small, committed, woman-owned companies are now designing and making shrouds in various styles, colors, and natural, biodegradable fibers such as cotton, linen, silk, and wool. These newly available, reinvented pieces function as a casket would, providing a shelter and vessel for the departing person.  Some seem like touchable pieces of art; one favorite has wide sleeves suggesting angel wings.  Another brings the beauty of ancient textiles and tribal weavings to the present.  

"Shrouds provide an interactive experience of closure," says Marion, the owner of the Portland-based shroud company called A Fine Farewell. In some of Marion's shrouds, "the fabric is laced up securely around the body. This can easily be done by family members, and offers a simple, symbolic activity to share. There is a non-verbal ‘knowing' that happens."

Theresa's linen shroud came with a built-in backboard and long attached straps that made lowering her body into the grave a participatory and moving experience for her family and friends.  This ingenious construction was created by Esmerelda, a former theater and costume designer whose shroud company, Kinkaraco, is one of the first to educate the public about the gifts of shrouds and "green burials" for this time.  

Shrouds Usage In Various Forms of Burials

Shrouds are an especially apt choice for green burials, when a person expresses a desire to return directly to the earth, without toxic embalming chemicals, a fancy metal casket or a cement grave liner.  Green burials, and especially the use of shrouds, invite a more direct and intimate engagement from mourners, something not available with the sealed casket, mechanical lowering devices and temporary artificial turf of a conventional burial. 

Shrouds can, however, also be used in more conventional burial situations.  A shroud can be placed inside a casket if that is what the family chooses.   Shrouds can also take the place of a casket inside some cemeteries' required burial liners or vaults in the ground, if policies mandate such practice, and if the cemetery owners are willing to work with the family.

Shrouds In Conventional Burials

Elizabeth, for example, wanted a green burial, but she and her husband had already purchased plots at a local Seattle cemetery near their home. The cemetery's rules dictated using a concrete vault for conventional burials.  In keeping with Elizabeth's desire to touch the earth, her family arranged for soil to be poured into the cement vault before they lowered Elizabeth down in her Kinkaraco white linen shroud - the same one Theresa's family used, with the backboard and lowering straps built into its structure.

Shrouds in Green Burials

Interestingly, this Kinkaraco shroud was used in the episode on green/shroud burials for the television series "Six Feet Under."  While under hospice care, Margaret watched that program, and, being a lifelong lover of nature, she immediately decided she wanted to be buried that way.  A hospice worker put Margaret in touch with Char Barrett, who owns A Sacred Moment, and whose funeral services specialize in home funeral vigils and green burials.  

Margaret was soon visualizing her own shroud, with green fabric and gold ribbons that would crisscross over her body, almost swaddling her. A Northwest pragmatist, Margaret felt grateful, even merry, that she would not have to shop for a burial dress.

When Margaret's time came, her family members did just as they'd been instructed, lovingly lacing her body into the green and gold shroud.   With Char's guidance, and Margaret's husband's soft, thick hemp rope, the family lowered Margaret into her final resting place - a perennial garden and green burial plot at Moles Greenacres Memorial Park in Ferndale.  Margaret was able to demonstrate in her death how she had lived her life, loving and respecting the earth. 

Shrouds in Cremations

Shrouds have also been wedded to cremations for centuries in other cultures. Now people are reclaiming that ancient practice again.  The basic cardboard or fiberboard tray required by crematoriums can be made more sacred and beautiful when someone is wrapped in a shroud first.  

Mim's family chose one of Marion's Fine Farewell shrouds, a burgundy piece with peonies - Mim's favorite flower - embroidered on the back and head covering.  Being able to personalize Mim's shroud in this way meant a lot to her son and step-daughter, who accompanied their mother all the way to the crematorium, and helped place her inside the cremation chamber.  Vibrant colorful flowers woven into the lacings and folds were a welcome contrast to the stark utilitarian surroundings of the crematorium. Mim's shroud became an integral part of the beauty and celebration of her life and who she was.

Will Never Be the Same

The people of these stories - Thomas, the priest; Margaret, who chose her own shroud; the friends and families of deceased loved ones; and the artistic dedicated women making shrouds available today - all speak for the human need to re-engage with death in sacred, creative, and nourishing ways - and with alternative funeral practices, like shrouds, that are simple and sustainable for the earth and all life.  These alternatives offer healing connection rather than separation, the chance for acceptance rather than fear and denial of death.  Indeed, because they are ecologically sound and sustainable funeral practices, ultimately, they bring renewal, and help weave life and death back together again in human experience. 

In Thomas's words: "I think the power of the moment, I think for all of those gathered, was the incredible beauty of seeing the sheathed body of someone that they loved, and love and will always love, returned with such dignity to the earth from which we are all formed in the beginning."

"Speaking for myself, I do not think that any of us there that day will ever be quite the same. And that is a good thing."

A Sacred Moment is one of the first licensed funeral homes in the country to offer home funerals and green burials as a central vision and purpose. It is now a full-service funeral home, offering direct cremations and conventional burials, along with memorial and funeral services.

Related Reading:

A Sacred Moment: Home Funeral Vigils, Green Burials and Life Celebrations

Green to the End