Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Shrouded Way, Updated

cremation ritual

The Telegraph published a story yesterday describing council regulations in West Yorkshire, UK, forbidding the combustion of regular street clothing during the cremation process. Apparently, the deceased are now required to be clothed in council approved shrouds. According to the story, reported by Matthew Moore, even colored cotton clothing and soft toys in children's caskets are said to be prohibited in the interests of cleaner emissions.

These regulations are more than heavy handed; they are incredibly out of touch and dehumanising. Certainly cleaner emissions are a laudable goal, and people everywhere can benefit from knowing how to improve them, but a person's clothing and the items that travel with them to the retort are very meaningful and should not be tampered with.

The clothing of the living is an integral part of a person's identity, and removing that layer is dehumanising. For this reason, military recruits are given identical uniforms and haircuts. Their identities must be broken down before they are rebuilt in a new way. This stripping of identity is also a common practice in prisons.

The clothing of the dead is often carefully chosen, sometimes even years in advance. Whether the dead are dressed in overalls, a track suit, a special suit or dress, or even a special T-shirt, that clothing is an expression of who that person was. When the survivors are missing that person, the clothing is an important reminder of the personality they are trying to remember.

A few years ago, the directors at our funeral home worked with the family of a teenage girl who died tragically. Her clothing was very important to her and who she was, and at the request of the family, this young lady wore casual youthful clothing during the evening visitation, and then was changed into more formal clothing for the funeral service the following day. I can't imagine the reaction of family and friends if this girl had been required to wear a utilitarian shroud.

In my experience, every family who loses a child places a special toy, often a stuffed animal made with artificial fibers, into the casket with their baby. Their emotions are complicated and volatile, and one very positive way for them to express their love is by placing these meaningful objects in the casket. The grief experienced by these parents is palpable and overwhelming. If the council prohibits these items, they should be required to tell the parents themselves, face to face, that this baby can't have a comforting toy for the sake of a few fumes.

There are many ways to reduce green house gases and toxins that should be explored before stripping the dead of their indentities and individuality. There are many steps that would have a greater impact on our environment than eliminating stuffed animals and other meaningful gifts from the caskets of children. It is my hope that this council slips out of their own shroud and repeals their ridiculous regulations.

Update, 17 June, 2009

The Daily Mail reported on this situation today. Here is an excerpt from the article. For the full text, visit

Grieving relatives have been left distraught after a council banned them from dressing loved ones in their favourite outfits in a crackdown on pollution. It means an end to people being cremated wearing their football shirts, or parents placing soft toys in children's coffins. Kirklees Council in West Yorkshire is the only authority in the country to adopt the approach, according to a national cremation body.

One man, who did not want to be named, was shocked to find his relative could not wear the 100 per cent cotton outfit she had chosen before she died. He said: 'We knew it had to be natural fibres so she chose a top and slip that was 100 per cent cotton. 'But when the funeral director came we were told she would have to wear a special shroud. He pulled out a swatch of different colours to choose from. 'We didn't know what it looked like and when we went to see her in the chapel of rest, we couldn't believe it. 'It was all fluffy and frilly. The deceased would not have wanted to have been seen dead in it - unfortunately she was.' The council set out the guidelines on cremation in a letter to funeral directors.

The document refers to rules in a charter by the Institute of Cemeteries and Crematoria Management (ICCM) which states: 'Clothing the deceased in clothes made of natural fibres/materials is acceptable whereas plastic, nylon and other synthetic materials are not acceptable due to the impact on the environment via emissions.' But Kirklees Council goes on to argue that even natural fibre clothing could contain man-made dyes or fibres that will impact on emissions.

I welcome my UK readers to post any updates on this matter in the comments section.


Bill said...

Very well put!! Sounds like these people entirely too much time on their hands and should look for some real wind mills to conquer!

Charles Cowling said...

Well, Tom, speaking from Fortress UK, let me tell you that we all think this is nuts. Unthinkable. Breathtaking. Words fail.

Perhaps the worst is that you probably don't know what a British burial shroud looks like. Gowns, we normally call them. Hideous things. Repellent. Ghastly.

I'd like to think that this sort of thing is not UK-specific. Please reassure me: officiousness is universal, isn't it?

Patrick McNally said...

Dear Charles,
Thanks for commenting, Charles! I was hoping to see you reaction.

Yes, officiousness is universal. We all suffer from and for it, but thankfully the shroud regulation is not here in the states...yet.

I think that separating one's plastics, paper, and cans is great for recycling rubbish. However, when we apply those rules to human disposition, it becomes human disposal, and we lose some of our humanity. Humanity is certainly something Mr. Morris and the Kirklees council could use more of.

Charles Cowling said...

Do you know, Tom, it is observable that many people who spend time in what might be described, broadly, as a caring role, become dismayingly desensitised. It's logical to suppose that their humanity would be extended and deepened by what they do, but, no, they become callous, dismissive, disengaged. I guess this has happened to Mr Morris -- but he's not the only one, not by a long chalk.

All the more praise and recognition are due, therefore, to those precious few who remain acutely attuned and sensitive to the needs of people. I've always supposed you to be one such, Tom. And I don't say that to flatter you. Not a bit of it. That is an entirely objective observation. Your blog speaks for you.

Anonymous said...

We are the family involved in this case and have just come across this article. We would like to point out that Tim Morris from the ICCM totally supported us, the guidelines he drew up were just that, a guide in order to help with emission control requirements. We are all for helping the environment but it is Kirklees who are to blame for their outrageous interpretation. They have behaved despicably towards us, have not and seemingly will not engage in dialogue with us yet have made comments in the Press. Our sincere wish is to overturn this ruling. Thankyou for your interest and support.

Patrick McNally said...

Thank you for your comment. My thoughts are with your family. It is a shame that on top of everything else, you had to deal with this bureaucratic affront as well.
Thanks also for clearing up the situation regarding Mr. Morris. I'm glad that he was supportive. Perhaps his comment was taken out of context by the Daily Mail. It is unfortunate that the sound bite came across as uncaring. In any case, I'll remove my editorializing about his comment from the post.

Anonymous said...

Hello again, thankyou for your kind thoughts. It is surprising to us that none of the local undertakers (to our knowledge)ever questioned Kirklees about the 'rules' seems they were led to believe that it was UK wide ruling. Perhaps any local Funeral Directors would consider using Elland or Wakefield crematoria (Wakefield is cheaper than Huddersfield), our opinion is that if they 'boycott' Kirklees they may be forced to do a u-turn on this important issue.
Thanks once again.

Patrick McNally said...

That's what we call 'voting with your feet'. If your local undertakers take this approach, they can ensure that other families won't have to deal with the awful shrouds, and Kirklees won't have any emissions to worry about!

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