What is a Shroud?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A shroud is a sheet of cloth which is used to wrap a body for burial. Depending on the cultural and religious beliefs of the deceased, a shroud may be left plain, or decorated with various artistic motifs. One particularly famous shroud is the Shroud of Turin, a length of linen which was allegedly used to prepare Christ for burial, although the Shroud's provenance has been repeatedly questioned by members of the scientific community.

Silk cocoons. Traditionally, fabrics made of natural fibers, like silk, are used for shrouds.
Silk cocoons. Traditionally, fabrics made of natural fibers, like silk, are used for shrouds.

Traditionally, shrouds are made from natural fibers such as cotton, linen, silk, and wool. These fibers would have been the only materials available for most of human history, but they also break down quickly, returning to the Earth along with the bodies they cover. It is also typical to use undyed or bleached material for a shroud, and any ornamentation added to the shroud is usually simple and religious in nature; for example, a shroud might be embroidered with a cross for a Christian burial.

Ancient Egyptian mummies were wrapped in shrouds of linen.
Ancient Egyptian mummies were wrapped in shrouds of linen.

To prepare a body for burial in a shroud, survivors of the deceased would undress him or her, wash the body carefully, and then swathe the nude body in the shroud. In some cases, the body might be anointed with precious oils, herbs, or spices before burial, and, in many cultures, objects are wrapped up in the folds of the shroud so that the deceased can carry these objects into the afterlife. It is also common for shrouds to be sewn closed, making it easier to respectfully move the body.

The word “shroud” comes from the Old English scrud, which means “garment,” reflecting the idea that shrouds are garments for the dead. When shrouds were commonly used, clothing was expensive to obtain and make, and therefore burying the dead in usable clothing would have been rather wasteful. Shrouds could be used to cover the dead respectfully while preserving their clothing, and, depending on the wishes of the deceased, jewelry such as wedding rings might be left on, or removed and passed down to descendants.

While a shroud alone was acceptable for burial in many cultures, especially among the poor, shrouds can also be used to wrap a body before casketing, or a shrouded body can be cremated. Shrouds have also been used historically to wrap bodies for burial at sea, in which case the shroud may be weighted so that the body sinks. Shrouds continue to be in use in some communities in the modern era, and many advocates of natural burial support shrouding because it allows bodies to break down quickly and gracefully in the ground.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

wesley91

@dega2010- The Shroud of Turin has sparked controversy for quite some time. While some are certain that the shroud outlines the real face of Jesus of Nazareth, others say it is a phony. Some people argue that the first century Jews did not bury people in body length shrouds. Others argue that point.

The Shroud of Turin shows a vivid outline of a man with a bearded face and obvious scars. Believers call it a “miraculous branding” that depicts Jesus Christ at the time of his resurrection.

We may never know the truth regarding the Shroud of Turin. It has been studied by scientists and went through many different tests to confirm its’ authenticity.

dega2010

I have heard several stories about the Shroud of Turin. I am confused about what all the controversy is about. Can anyone elaborate on that?

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