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What is a Winding Sheet?

Silk cocoons. Traditionally, fabrics made of natural fibers, like silk, are used for winding sheets.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 April 2014
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A winding sheet is a piece of fabric that is used to wrap a corpse for burial. Historically, these sheets could be used alone or paired with coffins, depending on the cultural values and social class of the deceased. Because they are so closely associated with death, they often appear as iconic images in poetry and stories which reference or confront death. People may also hear a of one referred to as a shroud.

In order to prepare a body for burial in a winding sheet, the survivors of the deceased would undress the body, wash it, and then wrap it in several turns of the fabric. In some cultures, the body might be anointed or painted before burial, and artifacts might be tucked up into the sheet to accompany the dead into the afterlife. Depending on tradition, the body could then be buried, or placed into a wooden coffin for burial.

Historically, clothing was very expensive, so the use of fabric allowed family members to keep the clothes of the deceased, rather than simply allowing them to rot. Jewelry might be removed or left with the dead, depending on the jewelry in question and the wishes of the decedent. After being wrapped, the body would take on an amorphous, clouded shape, due to the multiple layers of fabric used.

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Traditionally, natural fibers such as linen, cotton, or silk are used for winding sheets, and typically these fibers are left unbleached. Historically, of course, synthetic fibers would not have been available, but natural fibers continue to be used in cultures that still follow this practice, as they break down more easily. The sheet might be left plain, or decorated with embroidery; some cultures include such material in the trousseaux of new brides, indicating that the bride is ready for every stage of life.

People who promote natural burial often like to use winding sheets to allow their dead to return to the earth more quickly. The cloth may also be used in cremations, especially in cultures like India, where open-air cremations are still common. In a natural burial, the body is not embalmed, and it is generally buried within one to two days. The layers of fabric may be interspersed with flowers, letters, photographs, and other objects of symbolic value to the dead and the survivors. The sheet may also be sewn closed, making it easier to transport the body for burial.

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