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The burial shroud

By Susanne Duijvestein, sustainable funeral director of Bijafscheid

Photo: Denim death shroud from Wikkelgoed

Did you ever think about what you will wear when you're dead? In Holland it used to be the custom to make your own shirt and keep it in your cupboard, because you never know. Although this tradition has perished, the burial shroud rises makes a comeback in the 21st century as a more sustainable alternative to the coffin.

Burial Shroud For centuries, the linen closet was a status symbol in the Netherlands. Young women often spent years preparing all their linens: their trousseau for getting married. This beautiful industry was culturally praised. Part of this collection was often also her burial shroud. The young women often handmade this garment for herself and for her future husband.

The shrouds had simple designs, often a straight long shirt with three-quarter sleeves. The fabric was almost always linen, as the Netherlands was once the largest flax producer in the world. The shroud was provided with embroidered initials and the wedding year. Once finished, the needle was ritually burnt out of superstition. Poking yourself with the needle did not bode well either.

Worn twice

The shrouds were worn twice: the first time on the wedding night and then the hopefully love-filled rugs were put in the back of the closet, in the hope they wouldn't be needed in the close future: in the coffin.

The tradition has existed for a long time, but was lost after second World War. After these terrible years, everything that had to do with death and destruction was pushed out of daily life in many ways. This also applies to the 'memento mori' of the shroud. Sometimes you can come across an old linen shroud at an antique shop or thrift store. Many regional museums also have shrouds in their collection, as shown below.

Shroud from the collection of the Frisian Maritime Museum, with initials I.S. and year 1796 / Shroud from the collection of the Zuiderzee Museum. On the inside of the shirt, under the front slit the initials SH in black cross stitch / Shroud from the collection of the Fries Scheepvaartmuseum, with initials I.S. and year 1796

Contemporary significance of the shroud

Although the tradition of making shrouds yourself has been lost, 'death textiles' seem to have been resurrected in our present century. This has to do with a growing awareness of the environmental impact of funerals, and specifically the coffin. Legally, it is not mandatory to put a body in a box, and yet many trees are cut down and after burdensome transport buried or burned. Quite a shame. Provided that natural textiles are used, such as hemp, linen, wool and organic cotton and when produced responsibly, a fabric cover is a much more sustainable alternative.

It is even more sustainable to use old textile for a shroud. As a funeral director I often choose beautiful sheets from the closet together with the family to put over their loved ones. This way we don't bring new things into the world and we upcycle old textiles into a meaningful new destination.

Workshops Design your own Death Shroud Together with cultural institution Mediamatic, Susanne, gives new life to the tradition of making your own burial shroud. Together with several artists and designers she organized a series of workshops to make your own death textile. As a preparation for when the time comes, but mainly as a meaningful and healing activity talking about life together.

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