Body Care After Death: Washing & Shrouding

Burial shrouds (also called burial sheets, grave clothes, winding cloths or winding sheets) are fabric coverings draped around the body of the deceased.

Shrouding at its most simple can be relatively affordable. Shrouds might be made from animal skins, a bedsheet, elaborate garments, and many fabrics, all of which are able to do the important work of swaddling the body of the dead.

Always unique, some people choose it out of desire, some faiths require or encourage it, some are looking for a low-cost option, and some are seeking a covering with low environmental impact.

In human history, shrouds have been used in all parts of the world in religious, ecological, and personal creations. There are many reasons!

Washing and shrouding the body of someone you care for is a powerful ritual to honor and connect to the deceased through time and touch.

This practice can also offer a way to slow down and acknowledge grief when a person’s death may have been sudden or traumatic, to give the community more time with the person’s physical body.

Shrouds are often used as a covering. For some, it may provide a sense of dignity and honor to the person who has died.

The shroud covers and protects the body while shielding it from view if desired or swaddling for transportation and during the disposition process.

Examples of Burial Shrouds!

Tachrichim (Hebrew: תכריכים) are white burial furnishings in which the bodies of deceased Jewish people are dressed by the Chevra Kadisha, or other burial groups.

Muslims as well use burial shrouds that are made of white cotton or linen. Kaffan sheets Muslims are wrapped in for burial in a traditional practice called Ghusl.

Shroud of Turin, is believed by some to be the burial shroud of the Christian prophet Jesus. Many Christians continue this practice of shrouding the deceased.

Historic Examples of Shrouds around the World

According to the Instituto de Arqueología Amazónica, Chachapoya people of the Inca Empire would sometimes wrap their dead in woven cloth shrouds in the fetal position.

Historic Egyptians recorded methods and descriptions used to embalm the bodies of those who had died, such as in in herbal preservatives, then shroud the body in natural fabrics. Some writings about the embalming and burial process have been preserved in papyrus and translated.

Historic Northern-Europeans have also create textiles made of wild plants such as Nettles, and fabrics like linens to shroud bodies for burial.

Where to get a shroud:

You can make one from fabric or a large bed sheet, purchase one from a local funeral home, or by asking someone in your local death care group or spiritual community. There are several options for burial shrouds which range in design, material, and cost. Research your options and practice media literacy!

Note about Medical & Funeral Care:

  • Take time to research the processes for organ donation, autopsy, and embalming the body.
  • Each of these practices may be different depending on the location and institution.

Nonmedical Washing a Body:

  • Gather materials and prepare supplies (i.e. water, wash towels, bowl, castile soap, oils, shroud).
  • Uncover only one portion of the body at a time, and wash the body.
  • There may be guidance for body care in your experiences, lineage, or tradition. One way is to begin with the face, head, and hands, then the limbs and torso.
  • Oils, skin balm, or lotion can be used for moisture or offer care through the last massage.

Ongoing Body Care:

  • Place chux and/or towels in all leaky places: wounds, sores, autopsy sutures, etc.
  • Cut clothes to fit & lay out sturdy draw sheets for moving the body (tuck under body later).
  • Make sure there is ventilation for dry ice use, or use alternatives like Techni-Ice.
  • Drape body as desired, not bedding (they aren’t sleeping).
  • Ongoing Body Care
    • Change ice every 12-14 hours or as needed.
    • Close the shroud to still reveal the neckline until transport
    • Decorating: sheet, tray, coffin, cardboard, pine, etc.

Using a Shroud (no handles):

  • Unfold the shroud onto a clean, flat, dressing space in a cleansed environment.
  • If there are hemmed edges, face them upward, then place the body onto the shroud.
  • Cover the body
    • Begin by folding the shroud over the lowest portion of the body to wrap the lower fourth.
    • Then, starting on one side and diagonally folding the corner from the lower fourth to the opposite shoulder. Then fold from the shoulder to the opposite lower fourth.
    • Repeat the previous step on the opposite side of the body. Fold the sides over the body.
    • Consider keeping points of contact available (head, shoulders, ends of limbs, etc).
    • Choose to fold the end down over the head, when ready to cocoon the body.
  • Slide strips of fabric beneath the shrouded body to tie closed.
  • Gently and securely fasten the shroud so it is swaddled around the body of the deceased.
image: Digital PDFcopy of the Body Care After Death: Washing & Shrouding mini zine, created by Summer (thesunflowercycle.com) and A Sacred Passing (asacredpassing.org). This zine is raising funds for community death education, with any profit from made going to ASP!

Resources:

A Sacred Passing; Williams, L., & Diegel, S. (2020). Body Washing & Shrouding. A Sacred Passing: Death Midwifery and Community Education.

Burial, Conversation. “Why Mushroom Suits Won’t Work and How to Apply Forensic Taphonomy and Cemetery Studies to Make Green Graves One-Use Composting Machines: Green Burial Innovations, Part 3.” Memorial Ecosystems, 2n.d.

Davis-Marks, Isis. “Oldest Known Mummification Manual Reveals How Egyptians Embalmed the Face” (2021). Smithsonian Magazine.

Epstein, Lori, “A Spatial Analysis of Chachapoya Mortuary Practices at La Petaca, Chachapoyas, Peru
(2014). Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 2004-2019. 1341.

Hayes, Sarah. “The Evolution of the English Shroud: From Single Sheet to Draw-Strings and Sleeves.Archive at the Coffin Works, 18 Aug. 2019.

Jones, Barbara (1967). Design for Death. London: Andre Deutsch Limited. p. 57.

Kinkaraco. “A Brief History of Shrouds & Such” (2019). Green Funeral Products.

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