What's a Burial Shroud & How Does It Work?

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A burial shroud is a cloth that's wrapped around the deceased person's body before burial or cremation. Generally, shrouds preserve and protect the corpse while also covering the body from prying eyes and hungry animals.

Historically, shrouds were used by religious groups as part of their burial services, and these traditions still exist. The purpose and style of the shrouds differ from culture to culture, and even from person to person.

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Shrouds are customary in many religions, including in Christian, Muslim, and Orthodox Jewish faiths. Burial shrouds were used in the ancient world and made from animal hides. Now there are lots of options for burial shrouds, including green options that are biodegradable and inexpensive.

In this article, we will explore different shroud traditions and approaches to the shrouding process. This information can help you decide if a shroud is right for your situation.  

What's a Burial Shroud?

A burial shroud is a large cloth that can be made from a variety of materials. Different cultures create Burial shrouds from cloth, animal skin, or plants like bamboo. You can purchase them in various sizes, fabrics, and styles. 

Shrouds are almost always created from natural fibers. These materials are biodegradable and will allow the body to decay after burial. However, you can also find shrouds that naturally preserve the body. Today shrouds are commonly used in green burials, which helps these services be less damaging to the environment than traditional burial services.

Due to the increased interest in environmentally safe burial practices, burial shrouds are beginning to grow in popularity.

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What Burial Shrouds Look Like

Like most burial clothing, there are no rules for what a shroud should look like. But, synthetic fibers are seldom used. Some families create their own and others prefer to use pre-made shrouds. There are many options available at Amazon, eBay, and at your local funeral home. 

You can buy them with handles to make it easier to move the body after preparing it or without. Most shrouds are white, as this is the color of mourning for many religions, including Islamic and Jewish burial shrouds. People even use family blankets and quilts as shrouds. You can use any covering that seems right for you.

How Burial Shrouds Work

Once you’ve selected the shroud you want to use for your burial, ask the funeral home to dress the body. If you prefer to prepare the body yourself, make sure to read the shroud’s instructions before getting started. Many companies will list the directions online, which can help you know what you’re getting into before purchasing.

In the Jewish tradition, they call the ritual of dressing the body in a shroud, “Taharah.” This takes at least four people, with one person acting as the leader. First, they wash their hands three times and put on protective gloves to avoid any possible infection. Then the leader will say a prayer that asks for forgiveness for anything that might go wrong during the Taharah. 

They then remove all jewelry and nail polish from the corpse and examine the body. The group recites a prayer and goes to work, cleaning the body with cold water. This is a ritual purification or a Mikveh.

They dress the deceased in the shroud and tie it to the body.  Once finished, they will then lay the head on a pillow with some soil taken from Israel in the pillowcase. The ritual ends with them covering the nose and mouth with pieces of pottery.

The Muslim tradition is similar. They also take care to wash the body before adorning it with the shroud. If the deceased is a woman, they’ll also wash her hair and weave it into three braids. After cleaning, they’ll dress the body in a traditional shroud called a “Kafan.” 

They then anoint every part of the person’s body that touches the ground when praying with perfume or sandalwood. This includes the forehead, nose, hands, and the tips of the toes. The group will place the deceased person's hands in the prayer position to close the ritual.  

Shrouds are less common in the Christian tradition, but some Orthodox practitioners do still celebrate the custom of dressing their dead in a shroud. A trained group will wrap a special shroud called a winding-sheet, around the body of the deceased, and tie a thin cloth called a coronet around the forehead. 

Unlike other religious groups, Christians embroider symbols into their shrouds. The coronet will often have an image of the crucifixion. The winding-sheet bears the symbol of a three-bar cross.  At the funeral, it is customary for mourners to approach the casket, kiss first the image on the shroud, and then the cross on the coronet before paying respects.   

Burial shrouds are also put to use by environmentally conscious people looking to minimize their carbon footprint. This approach to the practice or “shrouding” involves wrapping the deceased in a shroud and burying them in a grave without a coffin. This allows the body to decay naturally without the chemicals and metal of more traditional casket burials.

There are a variety of different shrouds in materials like bamboo, organic cotton, and silk.  You can even custom make your shroud if you want to get creative. 

If you are serious about going green, there are guidelines for a green funeral provided by the Green Burial Council. Under these rules shrouds and burial containers must be constructed of biodegradable materials with no embalming fluid in the body. Graveyards must meet environmental standards and other rules to earn their green certification.

Should You Buy or Make a Burial Shroud?

A burial shroud can be as personal or utilitarian as you wish. Native Americans used to wrap their dead in animal hides and suspended them from trees or platforms as part of their burial practice.  

Many of the other religious traditions mentioned use plain white shrouds instead of more lavish options. It's believed that overly detailed shrouds are boastful or disrespectful to the dead. And many religions believe that in death everyone becomes equal, so having an unadorned shroud serves to place everyone at the same level.

If you decide to make your shroud you could make it out of a favorite blanket from childhood, a sleeping bag, a tapestry, etc. Some people decorate their shrouds with leaves, flowers, or embroidery.  The options are endless.

Of course, purchasing a shroud is a simpler option. You will not have to worry about the shroud not being big enough or strong enough to hold the weight of a body. They come in simple colors and fabrics and have a modest, elegant aesthetic. And you can always add personal details or touches to a shroud you purchased, rather than sewing or creating one entirely.  

Another consideration is whether to use a shrouding board or not. Bodies are difficult to move, and with an occasion such as a burial, this process doesn't look awkward. Especially if you're planning to have members of your family or close friends carry your body a shrouding board will make that job much more manageable. 

Shrouding boards keep the body supine and fastened to the wood, and also come with straps or handles to help carry the corpse. They make these boards from biodegradable wood that will naturally decay with the shroud. 

More and more funeral homes are going green and selling shrouds directly. You can even buy shrouds for your pet.

Ideally, the decision of what the proper shroud is for you should be made before you pass. If this is not possible the family should do their best to honor the traditions of the person’s culture and wishes.

Choosing the Right Covering

Burial shrouds are a meaningful option that is simple, yet beneficial for the environment. Shrouding allows for more personalization than a coffin and is far less expensive than traditional burials.  

Depending on your religious beliefs, a shroud may be part of your family’s custom, so the decision has already been made. Burial shrouds are also versatile options for the creative or eco-minded looking to think outside the box. And as environmental consciousness grows burial shrouds will continue to become more commonplace in funeral services.

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