The Man with the Shrouds: 1903

The monument for John Donne, showing him in his shroud.

The monument for John Donne, showing him in his shroud.


Chattanooga [TN] Times

”I have always maintained that every man ought to go to his own funeral dressed like a gentleman,” said the undertaker with artistic tastes. ”No matter how many hard knocks he has had to stand all through life; no matter if he has had to shift along with only one suit to his back, and that a hand-me down; when the struggle is all over and done with, he ought, I say, to make his last appearance dressed in the fashion. The world owes every man at least one good suit of clothes, and if it doesn’t pay its debt before his death it ought to see to it that the account is squared afterward.

“Women are more given to freak burial clothes than are men. Sentiment is largely responsible for their fantastic ideas. They have a special predilection for wedding gowns. I have known women who have been married thirty or forty years to cherish that one precious dress through all the ups and downs of life that they might wear it again on the last great occasion. These gowns look awfully old-fashioned and have a musty odor appropriately suggestive of the grave, after having been done up in lavender and tissue paper for so many years, but vanity no longer plays a part in the scheme of the old ladies’ existence, and style to them is a small matter compared with the gratification of sentiment.

‘”It brings good luck to be buried in wedding clothes,’ one woman told me shortly before she died.

“‘Good luck to whom?’ I asked. ‘How can that possibly benefit anybody? It certainly cannot be much of a mascot for the mourners, and the deceased is done with luck, both good and bad.’

“My answer puzzled her a good deal. ‘I don’t know for whom,’ she said, ‘but I do know that it brings good luck.’

“She evidently believed it, too, for when her time came she was laid away in a wedding outfit that was complete even to the slippers and bonnet. The incongruity of the headgear as an accessory to a burial toilet was enough to make an angel weep. It was an enormous, high crowned, white silk affair, fully fifty years old, and was fearfully unbecoming to her emaciated face, but her relatives had promised that she should wear it, and they were courageous enough to keep their word.

“I buried another woman not long ago dressed in a complete set of furs. Spite, not sentiment, was at the bottom of that exhibition of bad taste. The furs were very costly, and there had long been a bitter dispute among the female members of the old lady’s family as to who should wear them after she was done with them. As the time of her departure drew near the quarrel over the prospective ownership waxed hotter. The old lady herself was sorely perplexed over the merits of the various claimants. Now she inclined toward this one, now toward that. Finally she concluded that since the coveted furs were bound to create discord so long as they were above ground, nobody should have them, but that she should settle the rivalry and spite the whole brood of scheming nieces and cousins by wearing the furs herself to the end of the chapter.

“One of the oddest whims I have ever been called upon to humor was that of the man who insisted on going to his grave wrapped in the traditional winding sheet. He sent for me several days before he died and explained his fancy. I misunderstood him at first. I thought he meant an ordinary white shroud. I could remember the time, away back in my childhood days, when it was the custom to clothe both men and women in those flowing white robes, and I took it that he was simply a little old-fashioned and wished a reversal to primitive customs. But he quickly corrected that impression.

“‘I don’t mean anything of the kind,’ he said. ‘I want to be buried in a sheet—a plain, everyday white sheet.’

”For once my curiosity got the better of my good manners.

“’I’ll do as you ask, of course,’ I said; ‘but will you kindly tell me why you want to be dressed in that peculiar style?’

“The old fellow’s answer fairly staggered me.

“‘Because I’m going to do a good deal of haunting when I’m through with the flesh,’ he said, ‘and I’m going to take the sheet along with me, so there will be no delay about getting down to business. I’m going to leave lots of people behind who have been playing me mean tricks all their lives. I’ve never been able to get back at them in my present state, but just you wait till I get clear of these fetters, and if I don’t haunt them good and hard and make them wish they’d done the square thing by me when they had a chance it won’t be my fault.’

“I couldn’t make out then, and I haven’t been able to make out since, whether the old chap was downright crazy or just eccentric.” concluded the undertaker. “Anyway, it was not my business to investigate his mental condition. My business was to bury him in a sheet so long as he asked me to and was willing to pay for it, and I performed my part of the transaction to the letter.”

Current Literature, Volume 34, edited by Edward Jewitt Wheeler, 1903

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The newspapers of the period often printed articles such as the following, about the prudent men and women who prepared their burial clothing in readiness for the Great Dissolution.  One supposes that dusting around a shroud stored beneath the bed was a kind of domestic memento mori.


Kept Beneath Her Bed

By Woman Who Dies in New York at the Age of One Hundred and Seventeen Years.

New York, December 23. Cheerful to the last moment of consciousness, Mrs. Hannah Kosokopp, the oldest woman in New York and perhaps in the country, died to-day at the Home of the Daughters of Israel, 32 East One Hundred and Nineteenth street. She was said to be 117 years old.

  Cheerfulness had been her secret of health and of long life. In the three and a half years she had been in the institution, Mrs. Kosokopp had not been ill, and had never made a complaint of any kind.

  Mrs. Kosokopp was the most petted person in the house. Only a few days ago, on December 8, she celebrated her 117th birthday. She was born at Kovno, Russia, and remembered shaking hands with the Czar, grandfather of the present rule or of Russia. She also saw Napoleon, she said, when he invaded her country.

Sixty years ago she came to this country and made her home on the east side of this city.

  “When I had been in New York a few years,” she said not long ago, “I became sick. I thought I should die. While I was in bed I made with my own hands a shroud in which I said my body should be wrapped when prepared for burial. I still have the shroud, and keep it beneath my bed. I always have eaten when hungry, sometimes as many as 10 times a day.”

  The shroud was still beneath her bed when she died, and she will be buried in it. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 24 December 1914: p. 1 


Will Be Homespun Dress, Made Seventy-Five Years Ago.

Findlay, Ohio. June 16. Dressed in a homespun dress which she wove more than 75 years ago, Mrs. Francis L. Founds, 93 years old, will be buried at Foutty’s Landing, W. Va., to-morrow. She died here last night. Mrs. Founds was married twice and she wore this dress on each occasion. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 17 June 1913: p. 9 

SHROUD OF DOESKIN Made For Him Nearly Sixty Years Ago Enfolds the Corpse.

Sandusky Ohio, February 10. When Edward Hodgkinson, a wealth Bloomingville man, died to-day his body was dressed in a doeskin suit he had made in London, England, 58 years ago. He had never worn it, having kept it all these years for a funeral garb. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 11 February 1907 p. 1 

Given the extreme length of the Afterlife, it is interesting that so many people choose sentimental garb that will mark them on the streets of Summerland as hopelessly out-of-date. Let us remember that a simple winding-sheet is always stylish and can be worn so many different ways.

 At these links you will find articles on the latest fashions in shrouds (including interviews with the cheerful girl shroud-makers of New York) and shrouds and the supernatural.

Portions of this post appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.


5 thoughts on “The Man with the Shrouds: 1903

  1. Ana

    I’ve never expected a post about shrouds to be this fun 😀 !

    My grandmother had everything ready for her funeral (dress, pearls, makeup, grave spot) decades before her death.
    The part that was most interesting to me that she not only had a lipstick for her funeral, but that she changed the shade according to fashion trends.


    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      Oh, I love the idea that she changed her lipstick shade! It was a different mind-set–Be Prepared–my Grandmother tinkered with her lists of funeral details for ages too. I guess it’s your last appearance, you want to look your best! Glad you enjoyed the shroud man and thanks for being here.


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