This article discusses everything you need to know about what is a burial shroud, the alternative to a coffin. What a burial shroud looks like and if they’re legal or not.
“Would you rather your body was wrapped in a shroud, or placed in a coffin?”
I asked this question in my Facebook group
It turned out that it was more or less equally divided, but that many didn’t know hardly anything about what is a burial shroud.
So, what is a burial shroud?
It’s simply a piece of material that you wrap a dead body in, and then that piece of material is known as a shroud.
It can be something that is deliberately made out of all sorts of different types of material, usually organic, and bamboo or something like that. But it can also be something as simple as a white sheet cotton from your own home, or maybe a favourite piece of material that you have.
The reason I brought this up in the first place in my Facebook group is because of what happened with my uncle recently, who had died.
He had left strict instructions to me, as his executor, that it was to be as cheap as possible.
A cheaper alternative to a coffin
I knew that a burial shroud is likely to cost less than a coffin. So we were looking at direct cremation, which is, when there is no actual funeral, there’s no service, the body just gets taken to the crematorium, and is dealt with there.
I rang the crematorium to ask them would they accept a body and a shroud, and they didn’t know what I was talking about. They didn’t have a clue. In fact, they tried to tell me that it was a legal requirement in the UK that a body had to be in a coffin!
Now, it may be their preference, and it may be what they need to do as Funeral Directors. But it’s not a legal requirement. And that’s really important to know.
So, on the back of this in my facebook group, I thought I would find out what would people prefer? Would you rather be buried in a shroud or cremated in one if that’s possible? Or would you rather the body be placed in a coffin or casket and taken care of that way?
It was amazing the number of comments that we got, and what emerged as a result of that. It really made me realize that I needed to answer this question, what is a burial shroud? And what does it mean, if you want to have your body taken care of like this.
So here’s 4 pointers about burial shrouds
1. The body will be outlined
You need to know that with a shroud, ie a piece of material just wrapped around you, it is going to show the outline of a body, that’s just the way it is. And depending on the thickness of the material, it will show that outline more than other types of material. So effectively, a piece of felted material wouldn’t show it very much. But a piece of cotton would. This can be quite shocking. I remember when I first saw somebody who had chosen a shroud. I could see her head clearly defined. It is was a bit in your face if you’re not used to it! So that’s something to be aware of.
Because if this is a choice that you’re making, you can let your family and friends know beforehand that that’s what it will look like. And you can help the impact of that of course by choosing a or creating a shroud yourself in a thicker material because that will naturally help.
2. If you want to be cremated, you need to check if your local crematorium will accept a burial shroud.
Many of them don’t, because they first of all don’t know about it. But secondly, a shrouded body needs to be on a flat plate. That plate needs to have something at either end. That’s so when the body is pushed into the incinerator, there is something for the funeral director to push against. Otherwise they will be pushing directly against the body and that’s not okay. This isn’t a problem of course, with a coffin because they’re pushing against a wooden box so to speak.
It may be your wishes will be defined by what your local crematorium says what you can and can’t do.
3. If you want to be buried, check out with them that they will accept a shroud.
That’s because they may not be used to a burial shroud either. Visit burial ground and familiarize yourself with it and with the staff there as well. Once again, this is only polite really. Although it is much more common to have a shroud buried, many funeral directors and pallbearers will still not be familiar with this method of body disposal. So be kind to them and let them know in advance!
4. Think about the environmental impact of what it is that you want to do.
For some people this of course will be more important than others. Even if you do decide that you want a coffin, you might decide you want one that breaks down more easily than another. And if you want a shroud it will need to be something that is natural that goes in the earth.
Decisions about Burial Shrouds
So these are things that you really need to think through in advance and will help you make a decision. There’s also lots of different options springing up these days in terms of body disposal, so keep checking in on this site to be up to date. In the meantime, plump for what is best right now, as if you had popped your clogs yesterday, and your body was going to be taken care of imminently.
You’ll be pleased you have made a conscious decision about whether you would want your body wrapped in a shroud piece of material or placed in a coffin. Those you leave behind will also be happy you have made the decision and planned in advance too.
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Useful advice, Jane. Thank you for producing this.
Our favourite burial shrouds are the woollen felt cocoons produced by Yuli Somme at Bellacouche – https://www.bellacouche.com/ These are beautifully made and the procurement of every component has been thought through with the greatest of care and environmental responsibility.
Another point to add is the option to protect the shrouded body from backfilled soil by setting a row of timber planks, longer than the width of the grave, at an angle across the grave to form a void around the body. This is done at some Muslim burial grounds.
Shroud burial is perfect for natural burial, especially where the materials are local and sustainable.
Thanks James, for that info, very useful
This was interesting and not something i had considered but on reflection not for me i will be having a direct cremation and this can be done with a plain cheap coffin
Great you have made a conscious choice, Jen, based on all the information. It would be worth checking with the crematorium of your choice if they would take a body without a coffin but in a shroud and on a tray. Not sure if any crems are doing this yet in the UK, but it is bound to come. Even cheaper than a plain coffin!
I live in Australia and would like to share my experience. My husband died at home in November 2022. Thanks to you , we had used the two years of his illness to prepare for his death and fulfill his wishes. He chose to be cremated and to have a Celebration of Life to follow with no coffin or ashes present.
We had organized a shroud..a beautiful piece of cotton painted with an Indigenous Australian design. With the help of my daughter, I prepared his body and wrapped him in the shroud. We had to still have a coffin as it is too difficult to transport a body without it. He had insisted that it was a cardboard one and that minimized the environmental impact.
I feel truly blessed to have had this experience and encourage others to explore this option.
Thank you SO MUCH for the work you do for end of life planning. We both shared it widely and I will continue to do that.
Love and blessings. Robyn Sussems
Firstly Robyn, I am so sorry to hear of your husband’s death. But it sounds like you all were able to prepare really well for it together, which can be such a healing thing to do. And I really appreciate you sharing this here and also sharing the work of Before I Go Solutions. Many, many blessings to you
As a former funeral director I would like to mention that it is important to consider the physical condition of the person who has died and the length of time between death and the funeral. Certain diseases can cause a more rapid deterioration of the tissue, leading to leakage and unpleasant odours. A cloth shroud would not be suitable in these circumstances.
My understanding of the regulations at crematoria is that they stipulate the need for a coffin so that the staff do not have to handle the deceased for protection against any infectious diseases. However, it would be worth asking the crematorium superintendent for his ruling. Also be aware that there is a limit to the width of a coffin that will fit in a cremator, so this would also apply to the framework underneath the shroud.
Also it should be noted that all jewellery should be removed for cremation and that there are certain materials that are not permitted.
Thank you so much for this info, Harry – really helpful