Life

I Confronted My Mortality By Crafting My Own Burial Cloth

Nothing beats being prepared, so I decided to get a head start on my own funeral.
October 15, 2020, 7:00am
girl being wrapped in a burial cloth
All photos by the author

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

The flyer grabs my attention: “Have you ever thought about what you will wear when you’re dead?"

The workshop the flyer is advertising – which I immediately sign up for – promises the chance to "actively ponder your own death" while sewing a cloth alternative to a coffin. It's held at the Amsterdam media institute Mediamatic, and led by professional undertaker Susanne Duijvestein.

On the morning I'm meant to attend, I hear my alarm through a hangover haze. I’m sprawled out on a couch at an after party and I've had about 30 minutes of sleep. There is loose tobacco in my hair and I don’t feel great, but that’s OK: facing your own mortality is probably easier when you’re already feeling on the brink of death.

I'm late, but I'm game. My fellow participants (mostly older women) are already seated and ready to get started. I spot a guy in the back who looks about my age, and go to sit next to him. He’s alone, good looking and interested in death. I never thought I’d meet someone at a shroud-making class.

During the introduction, I learn that being buried or cremated is not a legal requirement in the Netherlands, and that it’s better for the environment to use a burial cloth. Traditional caskets use a lot of wood, only to be buried for eternity. I also learn that it was very common in 18th century Holland to make your own shroud.

“Women made a burial cloth for themselves and their fiancé before they got married, which was worn during both the wedding and the funeral,” says Susanne. She also tells us that some people prefer to bury their loved ones in cloth “because it’s more approachable and invites [mourners] to touch it”.

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The author in her death shroud.

Consider me convinced: I want a shroud, and I want it now. But before I start, I ask Susanne if it wouldn’t be better to wait until, you know, I’m a little older? After all, aside from not getting enough sleep, I’m a fairly healthy 20-something-year old. Susanne disagrees: “People are afraid of dying. By making a shroud, you connect to the temporary nature of your own being, and it can help you get over your fears.”

After those words of wisdom, it’s time to get started. First, we choose from a variety of different cloth types. Next, we decide what we want to do with them: embroidery, tie-dye, ink stamps and paint are all options. We can choose to make a festive dress or a simple sack. “Maybe you want to wear your shroud to your birthday party, like me,” says Susanne. “Just another way to briefly reconnect with death.”

I’m an attention seeker in life, so I choose a simple cotton cloth for my dead self, to negate some of the future showing off I plan to do. Also, sewing an actual dress looks way too hard. To check if it actually fits, Susanne swaddles me into a fabric burrito. Soon, a sense of calm washes over me. Turns out that being wrapped in your own burial cloth is incredibly relaxing.

It fits well, but I allow myself a few extra inches of cloth – a little weight gain by the time I die is not unlikely. While I use coffee grounds to dye my cut-to-size burial cloth, my handsome neighbour – whose name is Raphael – makes potato stamps to decorate his. I ask him why he’s here.

“I’m afraid of death, because I can’t imagine it," he says. "It really keeps me up at night. I'm hoping that by confronting death during this workshop, I’ll be less afraid.” Then he asks if I want to go smoke a cigarette, and I do. After all, today is about getting closer to death.

When I step back into the room, I’m suddenly overcome by an immense sadness. I don’t know if it’s my hangover, the rainy day or the workshop, but watching people decorate their own burial cloths is giving me existential dread. I imagine myself covered in soil, wrapped in my coffee-stained cloth, while those honouring my memory stuff their faces with cake at my wake. The reality that I will actually die someday has kicked in. This was meant to be a healing realisation, but I feel a lump in my throat as I embroider my shroud. We’re told to include things that are important to us, so I sew my brother’s initials onto the cloth.

“Does confronting your own death make you sad, too?” I ask an elderly neighbour who is busy tie-dying her sack fun colours. “I’m old,” she answers. “So I’m at peace with it. But you’re young, so you don’t need to feel that way just yet. You will, though.”

After four hours of hard work, we’re done. I ask my neighbour if he wants to go have a drink. We clink our cans together on a bench overlooking Amsterdam's IJ river. We toast to our deaths, but mainly to life, which I appreciate a whole lot more than when I woke up this morning.