An elderly woman entered my father’s funeral home in a tizzy. She expressed her desire to be buried in her own clothes. Crack! The cemented surface of tradition lay crumbling. The long era of burial shrouds in our Southern way of death was over.

Before she lost her job, I scrambled down the stairs whenever the Shroud Lady came to visit. Most women in town spent a couple of hours in the beauty parlour and emerged with twelve-foot high lacquered statues on their heads. The Shroud Lady wound her dark hair in a simple bun, ran a tube of red lipstick across her lips and piled her arms high with green cardboard dress boxes. She was a farmer, a mother and a shroud maker and had no time for parlour parley.

She opened the boxes carefully; even so the chiffon dresses billowed out. Hand covered buttons, lace trimmed high necks, pleated fronts, all details that made her the best shroud maker around. Not that there were many women sewing away, fighting to make their mark on the funeral business.

With a wink at the Shroud Lady, my father let me choose which ones he would buy. Sherbet colors stared back at me: pale pink, powder blue, lavender, mint green. Soothing colors heightened the strong impression that the corpse slept peacefully. I wanted one. I thought it would make a nice nightgown. I imagined wearing it, the chiffon floating behind me as I wandered the funeral home barefoot.

Then the Shroud Lady removed one from the box, gave it a little shake and turned its back toward me.

Tricked! The shroud had no back. Two strands of fabric tied at the back of the neck, the rest of the gown, also shorter than I had imagined, was open to the air.

Technically, a shroud is a winding cloth, or sheet made of natural fibre. But we Southerners do tend to exaggerate and “shroud” rippled off the tongue easier than burial dress. There was nothing natural about the nylon chiffon our seamstress bought by the bolt. But really, a shroud can be born of any type of fabric. And I learned that a shroud often materializes quite accidentally...

Recently I met a young textile artist at the New Designer’s Show in Islington. In constructing her project she followed detectives to crime scenes in which the victim had been left to the elements for many months. She studied victims’ clothes - clothes that had sadly become their shrouds.

Then she began to bury her own clothes, or rather, stole t-shirts from her father and placed them in the compost. She was astonished at how quickly the fabric deteriorated. She told me this rather cheerily.

Her business card is made of fabric with a hint of stain. Cheeky.

Thanks to Keely Butler for the use of her photos.

Séances And Other Pastimes

The first time I conducted a séance I was about twelve years old. This foray into the spirit world was purely for entertainment’s sake. Fright was the goal, and a séance was a way to fuel the fun of being terrified, as if growing up in a small town in the South wasn’t scary enough.

The perfect place for a séance would have been my father’s funeral home, in which he worked and we lived. But that was too real for most of our troops; anywhere but there was the cry. No one really wanted a spirit to actually appear. We put the setting together like an impromptu picnic. Anyone have a candle? What about a tablecloth? And we weren’t fancy about it, no cloaks, turbans or costume jewelry.

We clasped hands and I asked the spirit world to join us, as you do. Sometimes nature cooperated by sending a breeze through an open window. On nights when it was so warm and humid that our hands joined in a moisture bath, heat lightening flashed, the electricity crashed, the dark became darker and we were left dumbfounded by the silence. Then we screamed. Tantalizing as they were, these natural occurrences weren’t reliable. Time to employ – The Foot.

“Can you tell us Oh Great Spirit, does Jimmy love Deborah? One tap for yes and two taps for no, please.”

I became very good at tapping underneath the table with my foot. I stretched my leg and made it seem as if the tapping originated from the far end of the table.

And then we got one of these!

But then we saw this

and never used it again.

We added levitation to the repertoire. We called it “lifting”. It kind of works.

The person to be lifted lay supine on the floor. We sat on the floor around her, one person at her feet, another at her head and two people on each side. We made a lever with our hands by holding our forefinger and thumbs together - this looked like a gun - and placed them under her body. The leader hypnotized the subject into feeling very relaxed and heavy, soothing her, instructing her to allow her body’s weight to fall into our fingers. This went on for a while until our fingers, hands and arms began to ache. Finally, the leader said, “Lift!” With that the body rises in the air. Yes, it’s supported, but it really did feel like the body lifted much higher than it should and it felt outrageously light, as if floating. Then we gasped and dropped her from the shock of it. Worked every time.

Moving on to derelict house hunting, otherwise known as haunted houses, it was a pleasure to risk falling timbers, floors on the verge of collapse and an untold number of vermin to rummage through the remains of a lonely house.

One night we hit the wrong house. It was occupied! A woman who looked the living embodiment of a witch stuck her head out the second story window and angrily yelled down to us as we tried to enter her house. I clearly saw her long black scraggly hair, her one front tooth protruded terribly and her eyes were ever so slightly crossed. We ran away as our hearts leaped up our throats.

Ghost House
by Robert Frost

I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago,
And left no trace but the cellar walls,
And a cellar in which the daylight falls,
And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.

O'er ruined fences the grape-vines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field;
The orchard tree has grown one copse
Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;
The footpath down to the well is healed.

I dwell with a strangely aching heart
In that vanished abode there far apart
On that disused and forgotten road
That has no dust-bath now for the toad.
Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;

The whippoorwill is coming to shout
And hush and cluck and flutter about:
I hear him begin far enough away
Full many a time to say his say
Before he arrives to say it out.

It is under the small, dim, summer star.
I know not who these mute folk are
Who share the unlit place with me--
Those stones out under the low-limbed tree
Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar.

They are tireless folk, but slow and sad,
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad,--
With none among them that ever sings,
And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.