Burial Shrouds

What were colonists buried in? This was a question posed to Research Librarian Juleigh Clark. Tracking down the answer led her, and us, through the history of funerals, burials, shrouds and winding sheets.

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Harmony Hunter: Hi! Welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter. This time of year, our imaginations are filled with images of graves, coffins, and graveyards. This week on the show, we’re out to prove that the truth can be just as fascinating as fiction when it comes to the macabre. Here with us now is Public Services Librarian Juleigh Clark, who unearthed a body of interesting facts when she approached the topic of burial shrouds. Julie, thank you for being here today.

Juleigh Clark: Thank you for having me.

Harmony: Well, you are a research librarian at the John D. Rockefeller Library. Tell us where this question of shrouds started for you.

Juleigh: It started because a person who led a group in the historic area got a question. The question was, “What were people buried in in the 18th century?” The group leader said, “Oh, they were buried in their best clothes.” Someone in the group said, “Hey! Wait a minute! What about shrouds?” The group leader was like, “Uh, Oh!,” and he contacted me. I was like, “Well, I don’t know.” So I started doing some research. That’s how it all got started was a question from someone who was here visiting.

Harmony: It’s so wonderful because it lets us talk about so many different aspects of society and burial. Before we talk about shrouds specifically, or your best clothes, just to understand the context of burials in the 18th century, what do we need to understand about the business of burials and funerals then versus today?

Juleigh: There wasn’t much of a business of funerals. If you lived in a town, you might have the assistance of the cabinetmaker or furniture maker, who would make your coffin and probably be able to furnish a cart to put the coffin in and the body, and move you to the graveyard. Most people didn’t live in towns, most people lived in the country. They were pretty independent and had to work out whatever they could to make the funeral happen.

I actually have kind of an interesting quotation about that. James Blair, who was a reverend, Reverend James Blair who was at Bruton Parish Church in the early 1700s wrote in a letter to the English Bishop of London. He was sort of talking about burying and the problems that it had for Virginians, “What through want of ministers, what by their great distance, and the heat of the weather, and the smelling of the corpse, both to bury at other places than church yards, and to employ laics to read the funeral service.”

Basically what he’s saying is, there aren’t that many ministers around, people live very far apart from each other, and we’ve got to bury the bodies as fast as we can. If there’s not a minister around, then a laic or a family member or a friend that is not a clergyman, would read the service out of the “Book of Common Prayer.” There would not be a clergy person available, so he’s writing and explaining this to the Bishop of England. Of course in England, probably finding a minister was not a problem. There was very little in terms of a funeral business.

I did find one in Philadelphia, a much bigger city than Williamsburg. That was in mid-seventeenth century. How I found him was through a newspaper advertisement. His advertisement was something to the effect of, “James White, Upholsterer and Undertaker, Lately arrived from London.” We have somebody here that’s coming from a different culture, a more sophisticated culture. It goes on about how he makes all sorts of furniture for beds, etc. And finally he finishes up by saying “Also funerals furnished, shrouds ready made, pinked as in London or plain and pleated. Sheets.” That’s kind of the closest to a funeral director as we might find.

Harmony: So he mentioned shrouds. Let’s talk about shrouds. Who would have been buried in a shroud? What did a shroud consist of? What was the practicality of it? What have you learned?

Juleigh: Most everybody was buried in shrouds in the 18th century. How nice the shroud was, or how detailed, would totally depend on the person dying. If it was a poor person, it might be a very rough cheap fabric. If it was the Governor Lord Botetourt, who died here in Williamsburg, it was silk. The shroud would vary, and then of course if it was a shroud for an important person, it might have the ruffles and pleats, and so forth. If it was for a poor person, it might just be the most simple of gowns.

[It was] kind of like a nightgown that would be open all the way down the back. It would have sleeves that would cover your hands. And right underneath your hands would be like a ribbon or string that would tie so that your hands would be enclosed. It would cover all the way down your legs, and then underneath your feet again, it would be tied off, sort of like a bag. There would be a hole for your head. Your face would be there to be seen, and this again would probably depend on the wealth of the person, a little cap over your head, to cover your hair. It would tie under your chin, and it would be in all white linen or satin or silk.

Harmony: This is fascinating to me because whenever I picture a shroud, I always imagined it just sort of being a sheet that people were wrapped in. I never imagined something so tailored with all these embellishments.

Juleigh:  And they had to sew it up as fast as they could.  I don’t know if they would start when they realized the person was close to death, or if they would wait till the person was dead. Ready-made shrouds, of course, were offered by this tradesman in Philadelphia. They were definitely a garment. They did have something else, which they called winding sheets. That I think probably is maybe more of what you’re thinking of. It would be just sort of be wound around the body.

Harmony: Now why a shroud? Why not the best clothes?

Juleigh: Well, clothing was pretty difficult to get. And the best clothes, you would want to probably pass those onto your children or to someone else who could wear them and get some good out of them. That’s part of the reason. I have a real cute story. This is a family story from the Nelson family from Yorktown. When Mrs. Nelson was getting ready to die in 1830, this was the wife of the governor, Thomas Nelson, who owned the large home in Yorktown. When she was just a few days away from death, she told her family, “Don’t bury me in my new dress.” The story goes, the family laughed and said, “Oh no! We’ll find all kinds of old rags to dress you in.” She was very economy-minded. Clearly she wanted that new dress to get worn by someone who could actually show it off. People were very practical.

Harmony: How do we know what we know about burials and shrouds? What are some of the research sources you were able to reach to when you got this question?

Juleigh: One of the first things I looked at was the archeology, because there was a burial ground behind the palace of Revolutionary War soldiers. This was excavated in 1930, the very earliest excavations for Colonial Williamsburg. They found a soldier’s burying ground. People said, “These are soldiers, I’m sure they would be buried in their uniforms with their buttons, etc.” Well, oddly enough, only very few of those gravesites actually had buttons. They assumed, well they didn’t assume, there’s no buttons in this coffin or in this hole, depending on whether they were buried in a coffin or not. So we cannot say that they were buried in uniforms.

Harmony: And buttons would have been a big deal on a soldiers uniform. What would have indicated? Their unit?

Juleigh: Might have, yes.

Harmony: And they would have been brass or other metal?

Juleigh: Yes.

Harmony: So they would have survived when..

Juleigh: When fabric would have disintegrated. That was the cue that they were not in uniform. They didn’t have their buttons. Of course, the archeologists looked for any kind of printed documentation they could find. And they found that the public store was furnishing an awful lot of something called oznabrig, which was a very coarse linen, to the hospitals in large amounts. Oznabrig would have been used for the sheets for instance.

Why did they need so many sheets? The archeologists surmised that perhaps they used the sheets when the person died to wrap the body. So that be more a winding sheet idea than a shroud, but still it would be not buried in their clothes. Perhaps the few people that were buried in their clothes, there must have been a good reason. Very little could be surmised from what they found.  

Harmony: So archeology is one source. You’ve also found newspaper advertisements, and it sounds like some personal accounts, some letters that told you more the business of burial and the habits of our 18th century forebears.

Juleigh: Yes, I have a couple of interesting things. I told you the story of Lucy Grimes Nelson, but there was a will that we have a copy of. It’s a 1749 will of Leroy Griffin: “My body is to be deposited in the earth, its natural mother in the following manner: So soon as a coffin can be prepared, I desire that six of the neighboring gentlemen, my intimate acquaintance, may convey me to the place appointed for my reception. And the minister, perform the burial service without sermon. And for this service, I give a mourning ring of twenty shillings value to the minister, and to each of the six gentlemen that performed the last office of friendship to me. I’ll have no ceremonious pomp, but a dinner prepared for the gentlemen. And they to be entertained in the same manner as if I myself was present. And I earnestly forbid that any expense be made as to mourning, except for my wife because I look upon it as a needless and very extraordinary charge in a large family.”

So again, the practicality. And interestingly, he wants a minister to read the service, and he's going to give him a ring that’s worth twenty shillings, but if he had asked for a sermon, that would have been forty shillings. So he’s saving money, even in his will, in several ways.

Harmony: That’s wonderful.

Juleigh: There was also a questionnaire sent from the Bishop of London to all the ministers in the early 1700’s asking them questions about their place of work, their parish. And one of the questions is, “How do you make money? Where does your money come from?” And mostly they said, “We get forty shillings for a funeral sermon.” And they listed, of course, a lot of other things, but that forty shillings seemed to come up a good bit.

Harmony: That was the going rate.

Juleigh: Yes.

Harmony: This sounds like this was a question that led to a lot of interesting areas of research.  Well, is there something that surprised you particularly as you uncovered the answer to this question?

Juleigh: Well I really enjoyed the story of Lucy Nelson, of course.

And another thing I found interesting was I found a little tiny bit about slave funerals. This information really came from archeology and a little bit from the laws surrounding funerals. That was that apparently funerals seemed to be an opportunity where a lot of slaves would gather to mourn the departed person. This was looked upon with fear from the owners. Laws were made, just a small group of people, like five, could come to the funeral. Whether this happened in real life, some owners would say, “Sure, everybody can go,” I don’t know, but certainly that was the rule.

Then a slave graveyard was excavated in James City County in the Carter’s Grove area, and they found that the African American slaves were mostly buried in coffins, which would have been a European thing. But in their coffins, they found things like maybe a pipe and tobacco for the dead person to have something to do. Or perhaps their favorite item of clothing. They found someone with a glass necklace, beads of glass, or perhaps a gift to their ancestors. That would be the other item, or perhaps the pipe as well.  Very touching little things they found, and that was not a European custom at all.

Harmony: It would have been their own. We always love hearing from our friends at the library because you bring us such wonderful and surprising stories and show us what can be learned with a little bit of research. Thank you for being our guest today, and we want to remind all of our listeners that the same discoveries await them at the John D. Rockefeller Library. You can learn more by clicking on the link at history.org, or you can visit the library in person when you’re here and talk to one of these wonderful research experts and see what they can help you find in your own search. So, Juleigh, thank you so much for being here today.

Juleigh: Thank you Harmony for asking me.


  1. Your research librarian speaking in the podcast on burial customs made a statement about grave goods being an African (slave)custom, not a European one. I disagree. Many European cultures before (and sometimes after)Christianity came to Europe buried their dead with goods, clothing, weapons, tools, even servants – were the dead person of high enough social standing. Had she qualified the term “European” with “contemporary” or “Christian” I would not have the objection. Also I would caution against the universal use of “African-American”. This was invented to describe people whose ancestors came from Africa, but who were born in America. In the 1770s direct importation of Africans as slaves was legal and practiced to some degree. “Natural increase” did indeed provide a great number of slaves, but I am not sure all slaves were “American-born”. Would the term “Person(s) of African Descent” not be more inclusive?

  2. Folks, I most recently wrote and self published the life of George Washington as seen through the eyes of his friend an physician, James Craik. I found the research surrounding death and funeral to be very interesting and although I mention that GW was placed in a “shroud” I wasn’t quite clear exactly what it would have looked like. Thank you for this interesting article! I also authored “Colonel Washington and Me” – the life of GW as seen through the eyes of Billy Lee (for sale in the visitor center book store at CW) and found your reference to slave funerals very interesting. I did a fair amount of research on Virginia slave law and did not find that reference. I will certainly use it in my presentations in the future. Thanks again, really enjoyed it! -Jeff Finegan

  3. […] people to pay their respects until the funeral took place. (To learn more about shrouds, listen to Colonial Williamsburg’s podcast.) Black mourning clothes were donned by the well-to-do, a custom that had been introduced to […]

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