Recycled-Linen Burial Shrouds Bring a Delicate Topic Down to Earth

Christi Whiteley, left, and Carol Motley offer a soft landing for the business of death. Photo by Jack Sorokin

In her former career as a fashion designer and pattern maker, Christi Whiteley faced the daily task of tailoring fabric to size. First for Young Generations, a maker of youth dresses in Hendersonville, and then for H.W. Carter & Sons denim, she turned out clothing that flattered a wide variety of female forms

Whiteley was therefore intrigued by the problem posed a couple of years ago by her longtime friend Carol Motley, co-owner of Mourning Dove Studio/Bury Me Naturally in West Asheville. Could she make a garment that was truly one size fits all: a burial shroud?

The shrouds come in a range of peaceful natural colors. Photo by Jack Sorokin

Motley’s business markets supplies for “green” burial: cardboard coffins and biodegradable linen shrouds that help people reduce their environmental impact even after their death. “She was getting other people to make shrouds at the time, and she told me that it was a real issue,” Whiteley recalls. “If you have a man who’s six-foot-five and weighs 300 pounds, and then you have a teenage girl, how do they both fit in the same [sized] thing?”

Although out of the fashion business for some time — she runs Fleetwood’s vintage shop and wedding chapel and the Asheville Flea for Y’all with her husband, Simon — Whiteley decided to take up the challenge. Over a period of several weeks, she experimented with different patterns, often using her husband as a model for the works in progress. “I have lots of pictures of him in shrouds, but I made him smile in all of them,” she says.

Whiteley describes her eventual solution, which she sells under the name Shrouded House, as an adjustable burrito. Using a few carefully chosen long stitches, she created a way to change the length of the shroud as needed by folding or stretching a section of the fabric, then tuck the remaining sides into a neat, compact covering.

Shrouded House urges clients to personalize their pieces with notes, flowers, and simple mementos. Photo by Jack Sorokin

But beyond its function, Whiteley’s design is also beautiful in its simplicity. She frays the edges of the salvaged linen by hand, a subtle reminder of mortality, and uses the extra fabric to make a small pillow on which the deceased’s head can rest. The range of colors is limited but appropriate: natural, white, moss green, and a jacquard.

The families of the departed, who are encouraged to personalize the shrouds with flowers, notes, and other compostable items, know Whiteley only through her work; she prefers to let Motley handle the emotional aspects of funeral arrangements. “I’m not opposed to it, but I kind of like the distance,” Whiteley explains. “She’s great at talking to grieving people, where I would probably just cry.”

Still, Whiteley takes pride in the knowledge that her custom shrouds provide a dignified cover for the dead in their final hours above the earth. “Carol told me that one of my shrouds was used for a 13-year-old girl who overdosed,” she says. “It was the last thing that was done for her — I think that’s kind of special.”

Shrouded House, West Asheville. Call 828-699-2863 or see Shrouded House’s Facebook page for more information. For more information about Mourning Dove Studio/Bury Me Naturally, see mourningdovestudio.com.

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